EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Indonesia new cornerstone of Australia's foreign policy
, October 26, 2013
The Abbott government, since being sworn in on September 18, has undertaken a major foreign policy offensive designed to re-position Australia in the world.
The first item on the agenda, of both symbolic and practical importance, was to rebuild relations with Indonesia, damaged by the Labor government’s destruction of the live cattle trade and continuing friction over the arrival of tens of thousands of boat people.
Mr Abbott’s strategy was to send his foreign minister, Julie Bishop, to speak to her Indonesian counterpart in both New York and Jakarta, as a precursor to his own first overseas trip as Prime Minister to Jakarta, along with several of his colleagues and about 20 business leaders. This was followed by Mr Abbott’s attendance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Bali.
While in Jakarta, the new Prime Minister both publicly and privately showed respect for Indonesia’s leading position in South-East Asia, for the authority of Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for good relations between Canberra and Jakarta, and for Indonesia’s legitimate concerns about its sovereignty, the major focus of Indonesia’s armed forces, the TNI.
He assuaged concerns that his government would throw its weight around in international forums, instead emphasising Australia’s wish to work co-operatively with Australian and Indonesian business leaders to develop Indonesia’s economy and assist its 250 million people build a better future.
The absence of the US President, Barack Obama, from the APEC Summit gave Mr Abbott an opportunity to take the spotlight in a way that would not have been otherwise possible.
Whatever the reason for his absence, President Obama’s no-show will be seen as evidence of Washington’s declining commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. This is dangerous, because it is important that China and its ally, North Korea, understand that Washington’s commitment to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea is unshakeable.
In contrast, Tony Abbott’s focus on our neighbouring countries is seen very positively.
While Australia is a country which protects the rights of its citizens to peaceful protest, Mr Abbott made clear in Jakarta that his government had no sympathy for those who want to campaign for West Papuan independence.
Abbott’s sure-footed diplomacy opened doors not previously open to Australia, including real co-operation with Jakarta on the problem of people-smugglers who use Indonesia as a stepping-stone to land mainly Middle Eastern boat people in Australia.
While the U-turn by former Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, undoubtedly slowed the flood of illegal arrivals, Indonesia’s co-operation remains necessary to turn off the tap on this lucrative trade in human misery, which has led to the death of over 1,000 boat people in recent years.
There are a number of other challenges ahead in Australia-Indonesia relations.
Australia’s desire to rebuild its agricultural relationship with Indonesia was damaged by Labor’s unilateral cancellation of live cattle exports after animal rights activists filmed footage of cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs in 2011. This affair caused deep resentment in Jakarta.
The appropriate approach would have been to require immediate action to protect livestock in those abattoirs, rather than punish the Indonesian people and government.
A related problem is the Indonesian expectation that it would be given the right to buy cattle stations in northern Australia, to supply the Indonesian beef market.
If Australia wishes to invest in Indonesia, it can scarcely object to Indonesian investment in Australia. And further, Indonesian involvement in the live cattle export industry is likely to lead to greater opportunities for other Australian cattlemen to get into the Indonesian market, which is rapidly expanding.
There is an ongoing problem of Islamist extremism, seen in the infamous Bali bombings, and the attempted bombings of the Australian embassy and the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta by al Qaeda affiliates.
These attacks were intended to drive a deep wedge between Indonesia and Australia, to poison relations between our countries, and to end military co-operation. It is to the credit of both governments that Islamist terrorism had the opposite effect of bringing both countries closer together. Despite close surveillance, acts of terrorism could happen again, and will require the closest co-operation between both countries into the indefinite future.
A further complication is that, next year, Indonesia will hold presidential, national and provincial elections, at which time President Yudhoyono will retire, having served two terms.
Although a number of prominent Indonesian leaders have announced their candidature, including the popular mayor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, and a former leader of the TNI, Prabowo Subianto, most observers consider it to be an open race.
The need to re-establish close relations with the next president of Indonesia will be a major challenge for the government — and for Mr Abbott personally.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.