Australia-Indonesia ties yet to thaw

Australian Prime Minister John Howard came to Indonesia to melt the ice.

But the reception he got here left little doubt that a thaw in ties is some way to go, with Australia still struggling to crack the Javanese mindset of its giant neighbour that has a long memory of the troubled relationship between both countries and Canberra’s oft-blunt messages.

Mr Howard had to swallow a few bitter messages himself.

In posters and shouted comments, student demonstrators in Jakarta described him as a “racist”, a “bootlicker” and a “capitalist”.

Indonesia’s top politicians refused to meet him officially and legislators called for his visit to be postponed.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri was all smiles before the camera when she spoke of the need to develop “realistic and rational” ties.

But her diplomatic showmanship did little to hide the fact that very few of her lieutenants were enthusiastic about the Australian leader’s visit.


IT IS instructive to note that only two of her Cabinet ministers made themselves available to attend his business-luncheon talk last Thursday.

Mr Howard might have been praying for more political goodwill on his second fence-mending visit to Jakarta in just three months.

On paper, some of his initiatives looked good.

For a start, he pledged a A$1-million (S$947,000) donation for victims of the recent floods. He also signed a joint anti-terrorism agreement, which he described as “an important expression of cooperation about an issue which is important to the whole world and especially to our region”.

But there was little fanfare in Jakarta over this announcement.

Privately, some officials said it was yet another public-relations stunt by the Australian Prime Minister and a nice piece of paper aimed at addressing American and Asean concerns that Jakarta was doing little to investigate allegations that terrorist cells were operating here.

“The Australians are good at coming up with all kinds of ideas and equally good at burying them by not being sensitive to our concerns,” an Indonesian Cabinet minister lamented.

“There is no quick fix to this relationship because there is little trust between both sides. It blows hot and cold over any and every issue because the Australians have great difficulty understanding us.”

But is Indonesia making an effort to understand Australia?

To be sure, Jakarta appears to be keeping a distance at a time when Australia is trying its best to warm up to the Indonesian elite after its strategic reassessment of its role in Asia.

Why when just months ago things looked rosy?

Indeed, Mr Howard became the first foreign leader to meet Ms Megawati after her rise to power. Last November, the relationship appeared to be on an even keel.

Two weeks after the visit, he threw a spanner in the works by suggesting on a radio talk show that the Norwegian ship carrying 438 Afghan refugees return to Indonesian waters. What was domestic politics to most Australians was public diplomacy for Indonesia.

Mr Howard never bothered to consult the Indonesian government. For Jakarta, this was a fatal diplomatic blunder. And as a negotiating tactic with a conservative Javanese administration, it was doomed to failure.

It was hardly surprising then that Ms Megawati refused to return Mr Howard’s somewhat belated phone call on the refugee issue.

It was much the same following her muted criticism of the tactics being used by the United States-led international coalition against terrorism.

Her comments had only just been reported when the Australian leader went on air again to advise Indonesia not to weaken “its support of the American position”.

He went on to offer advice that he did not believe “the future of Indonesia lies in returning to more authoritarian ways”.

This could explain why Ms Megawati declined Australia’s request for a bilateral meeting between the two leaders at the Apec meeting in Shanghai.

Underlying all this, of course, is the legacy of East Timor.

The generals and politicians in Indonesia are still licking their wounds. They have not forgotten how quickly Canberra jumped on the bandwagon to lead a UN peacekeeping force there when it secured independence from Jakarta in 1999.


EAST Timor, more than anything else, continues to fester in the Indonesian conscience and underscores the bad chemistry between the two countries. An army general said: “We saw it as a betrayal, a slap in the face.” Given the bitter experience of East Timor, some Indonesians would like to think that there is an Australian hand in every separatist region in the country.

For example, there are allegations, strongly denied by Canberra, that Australia backs independence supporters in the Papua province. It could be more a case of some Indonesian politicians trying to score political points at home. Mr Howard’s visit to Indonesia comes at a time when the economic relationship is healthy and trade is picking up sharply. The baggage of history is making it difficult for both sides to find a meeting point.

For the relationship to improve, Mr Howard will need to take domestic politics out of foreign policy or move from public to private diplomacy in dealing with Indonesian leaders.

He appears to be doing that but Jakarta needs to listen. Otherwise, the ice will not melt.

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