: Australia and Indonesia
Good Neighbour, Bad Neighbour. What's the difference?
Richard Woolcott AC
Uniya Seminar Series 2006
Xavier College, Melbourne
2 August 2006
seminar series 2006
It is an honour and a pleasure to have been invited to address
this seminar, which is part of the Jesuit Social Justice Centre
series, especially as I doubt whether I am in a state of grace but
also because it brings me back to this august institution, Xavier,
College after many years.
Our subject this evening – Good Neighbour, Bad Neighbour:
What’s the Difference? – is both timely and important
. The first two points I would make about Australian – Indonesian
relations are that Indonesia is - and always will be - of paramount
importance to Australia and that there is, of course, a huge difference
between a good and a bad neighbourly relationship.
Prime Minister Howard said in 2003 our most important relationship
is with the United States, although the Government’s own White
Paper on foreign and trade policy of August 1997 was deliberately
careful not to differentiate between our four main relationships
with China, Japan, Indonesia and the United States. I believe this
was an unwise and unnecessary change of emphasis, which sent the
wrong signals to Indonesia, China and Japan.
No doubt the tragic attack on the World Trade Centre in New York
and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11 had a profound influence
on Prime Minister Howard and drew him closer to the Bush Administration.
But 11 September did not change our geographic location in South
East Asia. The resource rich Indonesian Archipelago of some 13,600
islands of which about 1000 are inhabited, stretching a distance
from Broome in our West to Christchurch in New Zealand, lying across
our Northern approaches and our main air and sea lanes to East Asia
and Europe, must always be a country of great and special importance
Over the last few years with the democratic election of a Parliament
(the DPR) and of President Yudhoyono the relationship with Indonesia
has become much more complex and less predictable. It is even more
in need of sophisticated management and greater public understanding
than ever before. Moreover, our relationship with Indonesia is more
immediate, simply because of its size and proximity compared to
our other major relationships, such as those with China, Japan,
the United States and India. There is no doubt in my mind that both
countries must make a special effort – given our cultural
and social differences – to be good neighbours.
While there is a great focus at present in government, academic,
and media circles in this country on the opportunities for Australia
provided by the booming economies of China and India and on a resurgence
of the Japanese economy, as well as on the established relationship
with the United States, it would be foolish if Australians were
to downplay the importance, the opportunities and the potential
for us in our immediate northern neighbour, as we did in the late
The late 1990’s and early 2000’s were a period of upheaval
in Indonesia. The East Asian economic crisis in 1997-8, seriously
damaged the Indonesian economy. The resignation of President Soeharto
in May 1998, opened the way to political change and three consecutive
erratic presidencies before the election of President Yudhoyono
in 2004. The country had also experienced the bloody separation
of East Timor in 2000 and the Bali bombings in 2002. Indonesia appeared
to many Australians to be more unstable, more unpredictable, and
generally less important to Australia – except for the need
to cooperate in combating people smuggling and terrorism –
than it had been throughout the eighties and up to the mid nineties.
Such an attitude was short sighted and mistaken. Our relationship
with Indonesia is far too important to be allowed to drift.
I intend this evening to set out five guidelines, or markers, on
how I consider Australians, including the Howard–Costello-Vaile
Government and the Opposition should handle the relationship with
Indonesia in the future.
Firstly, we should not expect too much too quickly from President
Yudhoyono’s Government. When the former American Secretary
of State, Richard Armitage, visited Sydney last year he described
Indonesia as “ a fantastic success” because it had become
a democracy, because President Yudhoyono has close connections with
America and because of his government’s opposition to Islamic
extremism. The reality is, however, that SBY is a cautious consensus
builder. He calculates what he can do politically and what he thinks
would be too disruptive to attempt.
Indonesia is a fragile democracy. SBY’s party holds only
55 seats in the Indonesian Parliament of 550 members. His strength
is derived from the size of his popular mandate rather than his
parliamentary support. He received 60.62% of the popular vote at
the Presidential election but Golkar, led by Vice President Jusuf
Kalla and the PDI, still led by former President Megawati Soekarnoputri,
can if they combine, defeat legislation introduced by the President.
This is why SBY has chosen to act against issues such as acts of
terrorism, gambling, drugs and corruption, which can command wide
parliamentary support. Countries like Australia sometimes overlook
how long it can take to fashion a stable democracy. Indonesia deserves
more credit than it has been given for the political reforms that
have taken root in the last few years.
The second marker to which I wish to refer is Islam. The direction
Islam takes in Indonesia is of enormous importance to Australia.
Our situation is, for example, totally different from that of the
United States. We should remember that the United States is situated
in a monotheistic hemisphere, which is nominally Christian from
Alaska and northern Canada to Tierra del Fuego. In East Asia Christianity
is a minority religion in a region of great diversity, which includes
very large Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu communities. By population,
neighbouring Indonesia is the largest Islamic country in the world.
Malaysia and Brunei also have Islamic majorities, while Singapore,
the Philippines, Thailand, India and China all have substantial
While Australia needs to maintain firm opposition to Islamic extremism
and to continue to work with Indonesia in opposing terrorism, we
need a more sensitive and sophisticated approach to religious issues
in our region. President Bush’s so called “global war
on terror”, to which the Howard Government has closely linked
Australia, is sometimes seen as a politically expedient slogan,
even in the United States, which often serves to mask rather than
define the real challenge.
What we are witnessing in much of the Islamic world, including
Indonesia, is a struggle for the hearts and minds of Muslims between
the moderates and the modernisers on the one hand and, on the other,
the conservatives and fundamentalists, including extremists who
are prepared to use terror. It is vital to Australia that the moderates
and modernisers prevail.
SBY, despite his strong opposition to terrorism and to extremism
has been reluctant to respond to politically motivated demands from
Australia to ban Jemaah Islamiyah because of the danger of radicalising
many of the moderates. As one prominent Indonesian said to me recently,
“if you mishandle the extremist minority, you could radicalise
a number of the moderates because they, like the extremists, share
opposition to the American occupation of Iraq”. Moreover,
since Jemaah Islamiyah has the inclusive meaning in Bahasa Indonesia
of “Muslim Brotherhood” a blanket ban is difficult.
In respect of action against terrorism, we need also to draw a
distinction between combating terrorist extremism - an objective
which Indonesia shares- and the war in Iraq, which the Australian
government supports and that the Indonesian Government opposed on
the grounds that it would stimulate anti-Americanism throughout
Indonesia, and would facilitate the recruitment of Islamic terrorists.
Because the original invasion was led by the United States, the
United Kingdom and Australia - all Western democracies – many
Indonesians consider this has eroded their moral standing and has
challenged the United Nations’ founding principal of collective
The third marker I would like to put down is that Australians should
not think of Indonesia as a threat. I suspect this is a manifestation
of the uneasy feeling of many Australians that, historically, the
country has felt under threat and needed the protection of a major
power. First it was Japan. Then it was communist China. More recently
some of these fears have unjustifiably been transferred to Indonesia.
According to a recent Lowy Institute survey only 52 % of Australians
had a positive attitude towards Indonesia. Other polls suggest that
30% of Australians still see Indonesia as a threat to our security.
This is presumably based on a mixture of fear, because of Indonesia’s
size, its proximity and the complexity of its society, as well as
widespread ignorance and latent racism.
Indonesia does not threaten Australia. Indonesia’s armed
forces are relatively small and do not have the capacity to attack
Australia. If relations are strained, however, Indonesia can cause
us considerable difficulties. It is the country most entangled in
our domestic politics; more so than the United States, China and
Indonesia itself is a huge archipelago in which the maintenance
of law and order is a major preoccupation. As a senior Indonesian
General once said to me when discussing this question, “Indonesia
has more than enough domestic problems with which to cope. The cure
for ingestion is not to eat more”. I believe Australians should
regard Indonesia as an opportunity, as the Howard Government currently
regards China, not as a threat.
Unfortunately, such concerns exist on both sides. Nationalism is
a strong force in Indonesian politics. A number of members of the
Indonesian armed forces and members of Parliament, including members
of the influential Committee I, believe Australia is a threat to
Indonesia’s territorial integrity. They see our support for
the separation of East Timor as likely to be followed by support
for the independence of West Papua and even Acheh, despite Government
and Opposition denials. Our military expenditure is more than ten
times that of Indonesia and the clear superiority of our defence
equipment and systems understandably troubles some Indonesian strategists.
Some senior Generals still speak of Australia as a threat from the
The fourth marker is the need to acknowledge that important policy
differences remain, notwithstanding improved personal relations
at the head of government level. The stationary printed for the
Australia Indonesia Ministerial Forum 2005 carried under the two
crests the words “Close Neighbours; Strong Partners”.
The first is a fact. But the partnership is a work in progress.
The election of SBY, followed by Australia’s very generous
and prompt response to the tsunami tragedy, the subsequent earthquakes
in Nias, Sumatra, and most recently in South Java, as well as growing
cooperation in measures to combat terrorism have created the opportunity
to improve further bilateral relations. Indonesia strongly supported
Australia’s recent admission to the East Asian summit, after
we had belatedly and somewhat ungraciously agreed to sign the Treaty
of Amity and Cooperation. But we should not forget the wise Malay
proverb that because the water is still it does not mean there are
no crocodiles below the surface. Important differences in policy
I am not suggesting that a policy that might cause concern to our
regional neighbours should be avoided, especially one clearly based
on Australia’s interests. Clearly, however, relationships
are closer if we find ourselves pursuing similar approaches to major
international and regional issues. We need to realise, in this context,
that we are seen by many Indonesians as more closely aligned with
the United States - or with the Bush Administration - than ever
before. This and some Prime Ministerial and Ministerial comments
have nourished the perception of the “ Deputy Sheriff role”.
While countries in the region generally welcome constructive and
consultative American involvement, there are still concerns in Indonesia
that Australia is now a less independent voice than we were and
that we do not use our position to try to influence American decisions
that may impact adversely on our region. Indonesia is also concerned
by Australian plans to acquire and deploy missiles, which will put
Indonesia within range. The Prime Minister’s support for a
right to launch pre-emptive strikes in South East Asia, although
since qualified, and the original decision to create a 1000 nautical
mile surveillance zone, which would encroach on Indonesian territorial
sovereignty, have also caused anxiety in Indonesia.
More importantly we need to recognise that Indonesians, including
the President, the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister were
all opposed to the invasion of Iraq. This cannot be reversed and
the situation it has created must be addressed. Nevertheless, Indonesians
remain concerned, as I have already noted, that the occupation has
led to increased – not reduced - terrorism in the Middle East
and that it has offered enhanced recruiting opportunities to Islamic
Unfavourable perceptions of our method of conducting our diplomacy
still linger. Our style is often seen as assertive, moralising and
intrusive. What Foreign Minister Wirajuda has called “megaphone
diplomacy”, often invoked for domestic political reasons,
is unhelpful. There has also been a distaste for what is perceived
to be jingoism, an excessive emphasis on military heroics and triumphalism
in relation, for example, to our intervention in East Timor in 1999.
The fifth guideline I wish to stress is that, although the Indonesian
economy remains fragile and foreign investments is still sluggish,
we should expect that in the longer term and with stable government
Indonesia, with its population expected to reach 300 million by
2050, offers Australia considerable commercial and selective investment
We need always to keep in mind, on both sides of the Arafura Sea,
that the relationship between Australia and Indonesia is a complex
and fragile one between two very different societies. It requires
a continuing and special effort to sustain the relationship. With
such an investment in it the government should avoid creating unnecessary
misunderstandings and concerns, as it has sometimes done in the
past, usually for domestic political reasons.
The meeting between Howard and President Yudhoyono on Batam Island
on 28 June took place and a measure of cordiality was restored at
the head of government level. We should, however, rely less on personal
relationships between heads of governments and certain Ministers,
which can mask important cultural and policy differences. John Howard
himself said in a moment of frankness and without “spin”
on 16 June last that, “it is a very difficult relationship”.
We need, therefore at the government level to build a wider convergence
of policies and, at the public level, a deeper and more general
mutual understanding. Neither will be easy.
I consider it is imperative to change perceptions of Australia
in Indonesia and perceptions of Indonesia in the wider Australian
community. What steps can be taken to advance this cause? If I still
had a policy-advising role, I would suggest the government take
the following four steps.
Firstly, the government should ensure that adequately funded programs
are provided for increased language studies and people to people
contacts, in both directions between elected members of the Australian
and Indonesian Parliaments, academics, youth leaders, writers, journalists,
moderate religious figures and other groups to provide an ever-widening
range of contacts to help increase knowledge of each country in
the other and to break down ignorance and prejudice.
It has been disappointing to note the sharp decline in Indonesian
language studies. I understand that there are fewer than 40 first
year University students studying Indonesian this year. The Australia/Indonesia
Institute does valuable work in this regard. The main Universities
also make a useful contribution but there is a need to do much,
Secondly, we should consult more closely on important policy decisions,
which can impact on either country. For example, we consulted Indonesia
closely over our decision to participate in the first Gulf War in
1991 but we did not do so when we joined the invasion of Iraq in
Thirdly, Australia and Indonesia should work towards expanding
defence cooperation through wider exchange programs and by reinstating,
with Indonesian support, the 1995 Agreement on Mutual Security or
some similar arrangement. After all we do share a region and have
a common interest in its security.
Fourthly, in addition to working to strengthen our bilateral relations,
we should continue to consult and cooperate with Indonesia, whenever,
possible in multilateral forums such as the United Nations, the
Post Ministerial Forum of the Association of South East Asian Nations
(ASEAN), future East Asian summits, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the
Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings (APEC), the WTO and the
Cairns Group. Even when we have different policies it is helpful
to ensure that the reasons for the differences are understood on
Indonesia faces a complex of problems that most Australians cannot
be expected to fully comprehend. Conversely, Australia enjoys a
lifestyle that can only be imagined by most Indonesians. Seeking
to build bridges between our very different societies is not something
from which either side should shrink; but rather it is a national
objective that should be seen as an exciting and worthwhile challenge.
If we succeed, both Australia and Indonesia will benefit.
An active and important bilateral relationship is like a rope.
It is made up of many strands. Some may be positive; others negative.
Official diplomacy must operate in the world as it is and not in
a world as it should be. There will always be tensions between principle
and morality, on the one hand and, on the other expediency and the
constraints imposed by existing realities. Often in foreign policy
decisions have to reflect an appropriate balance between conflicting
For example, well- intentioned advocates of human rights and civil
liberties, with genuine concerns, are unlikely to agree with those
who want closer military cooperation with the Indonesian armed forces
in the context of our shared regional security. Also, those who
believe that the West Papuans were duded in 1969 by the so called
act of free choice and that they should exercise self-determination,
are unlikely to see eye to eye with those who believe that any further
fragmentation, after East Timor, of the territorial integrity of
the State of Indonesia must be avoided in the national interest.
Just as we do not allow our relations with China to be dominated
by legitimate concerns about Tibet, Taiwan and the mistreatment
of members of the Falun Gong sect; and just as we should not have
allowed our close alliance with the United States to draw us into
a costly, unnecessary, destructive and distant war in Iraq, we must
not allow our relations with Indonesia to be held hostage to those
who seek the unrealistic goal of an independent West Papua.
To succeed in our essential thrust into East Asia, Australia must
develop a much deeper public understanding of our largest and closest
Asian neighbour and in this context work to promote a major change
in public attitudes towards Indonesia; a change which will reject
both a negative and biased approach towards it and an overeager
enthusiasm. This is a challenge and a national interest, which all
intelligent Australians especially religious figures and academic
and media commentators should work to assist rather than retard
as some have done in recent years. This is not “appeasement“,
as some commentators and our media sometimes suggest. It is practical
common sense and a recognition of the realities stemming from our
place on the globe.
I have no doubt that it is in the interest of future generations
of Australians that the Government of the day and the Opposition,
supported by the wider community, must pursue a constructive, balanced,
more educated, more objective, more understanding and less self-righteous
approach to Indonesia, without undertones of racism or religious
intolerance. Indonesia is a very large and influential nation beside
which we shall live for the rest of time.
Richard Woolcott is a former Secretary of the Department of
Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ambassador to Indonesia and Chairman
of the Australia Indonesia Institute. Currently he is Founding Director
of the Asia Society AustralAsia Centre. The views expressed in this
address are his own.
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