Since the Whitlam era, an abiding myth about Australian foreign policy goes like this: Asia is a monolith and we must engage with it. Moreover, it is the Australian Labor party that has promoted engagement with the region more effectively than conservative governments that are more or less hung up with outmoded commitments to ‘great and powerful friends’ (in Robert Menzies’s language).
While this widely held view among the sophisticates abated somewhat during the Rudd-Gillard era, it has returned forcibly since Tony Abbott became prime minister. Australia’s formerly quiescent Jakarta lobby has once again raised its geriatric head, and it has found a willing medium for its views with the journalists and intellectuals. Former diplomats, such as Whitlam’s China ambassador Stephen FitzGerald, contend that ‘a strong, independent, democratic and regionally influential Indonesia is not going to put up’ with Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison’s ‘patronising racism’. He is, of course, referring to the government’s robust handling of illegal seaborne migrants.
What’s going on here? Well, the first point to bear in mind is that the so-called experts read the region through a parochially self-loathing lens. They assume the Indonesian criticism of Australia’s boat policy is legitimate. Consequently, when Australian- educated foreign minister Marty Natalegawa condemns the Abbott government as ‘anti-humanitarian’, he subtly exploits this characteristic of Australian progressives. Indeed, the pursuit of abstract virtue is more important to an anti-capitalist zombie Left than any mundane preoccupation with the national interest.
According to the Asian engagement mindset, the deterioration in ties between Australia and Indonesia over phone-tapping revelations will jeopardise Canberra’s wider relationship with Southeast and Northeast Asia. That is perhaps why Marty, in his bilateral meeting with John Kerry last month, denounced Australian surveillance while conveniently ignoring Washington’s far more significant role in co-ordinating this activity.
To get a better grip on the Indonesian pysche, let’s look a little more closely at contemporary foreign policy under the stewardship of Marty Natalegawa and his postmodern buddies educated in western self-criticism at the UK and Australia’s top universities.
It is clear that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a lame duck and his Democrat party factionalised and mired in what the Indonesian press terms ‘graft’. In particular the Indonesian corruption committee has accused senior party figures of taking several million dollars in bribes to ensure a gas contract went to a local enterprise rather than Chevron. Not a good look for a party that came to power promising transparency and an end to corruption. Meanwhile, the President thinks he is a victim of sorcery and recently persuaded a superstitious parliament to pass a law against witchcraft. The economy is stuttering and the decision to restrict the export of raw materials and the import of high tech goods smacks of the failed protectionist policies of the Sukarno era.
In this context, the government loses little by playing the nationalist card. Here, however, it faces a stern challenge from the parties likely to prevail in April’s elections. Megawati Sukarnoputri’s nationalist party currently tops the polls. Mega took a dim view of Australian meddling in the region during her brief and uninspiring presidency in 2002. Meanwhile, the Gerindra party of former President Suharto’s son-in-law and former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto is also likely to perform strongly. Prabowo, of course, is well known for his special forces humanitarian treatment of the East Timorese in the late 1990s, which doesn’t seem to bother Marty too much as he positions himself to continue as Foreign Minister whoever becomes the next President. Given the emotive nationalism that dominates the election campaign, Abbott’s ‘colonial arrogance’ represents an obvious target for all the key political protagonists.
Yet less well advertised, at least in the Australian media, is how Indonesia’s assertive nationalism has damaged relations with its closest Asian neighbours, such as Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. These nations, along with Indonesia and Thailand, were founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1967 and share a commitment to the regional norms of non-binding consensus and good interpersonal relations. Singaporeans and Malaysians suffer from the choking smog emanating from burning plantations in the Riau. Successive ASEAN attempts to get Indonesia to do something about the ‘haze’, as it is euphemistically known, have gone nowhere. More disturbingly, the insensitive Indonesian decision to name a new navy corvette after two commandos who conducted a terrorist attack in Singapore in 1965, during the Sukarno era konfrontasi with postcolonial Singapore and Malaysia, has severely damaged bilateral ties. As Singaporean Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan observed, Indonesian actions consistently violate regional norms, and ‘the welfare of close neighbours is not their priority’. Balakrishnan considered this ‘the hard truth of regional politics’.
In the aftermath of Singapore’s condemnation, the chair of the influential Indonesian House Commission on Foreign Affairs Mahfudz Siddiq condemned unnamed ‘foreign powers’ that are ‘interfering’ in Indonesia’s affairs during the instability of an election period. Singapore’s realism contrasts dramatically with Indonesia’s emotionally driven approach to foreign affairs.
Meanwhile, the South China Sea dispute and growing tensions between Southeast Asian states aligned with or against China’s claim could condemn ASEAN to regional irrelevance. Whether it is Chinese assertiveness or the problem of illegal migrants which distorts relations, not only between Indonesia and Australia but also between Indonesia and Malaysia and Thailand and Burma (note that Thailand forcibly returned 1,300 Rohinga Muslims recently to an uncertain fate in Buddhist Burma), the hard truth of regional politics is that there is no regional will to establish regional solutions. Where there is no will there is no way.
That is why Abbott’s robust assertion of the national interest and the territorial integrity of Australian borders in times of growing uncertainty about the geopolitics of the Asian Pacific is justified.
David Martin Jones is associate professor of politics at the University of Queensland.