Mr. Barrett told The Diplomat that the rhetoric of the Australian Federal election in September this year was particularly problematic. “The then Opposition leader and now prime minister conducted a very aggressive campaign directed entirely to an Australian audience that basically said ‘it doesn’t matter what Indonesia thinks, we’re going to turn back the boats’. Unsurprisingly, people in Jakarta do think it matters what Indonesia thinks.”
With Indonesia set to vote for a new president in mid-July 2014, nationalism has returned to Indonesian politics. Professor Tim Lindsey, an Indonesian expert at The University of Melbourne Law School, believes that such domestic pressures contributed to Yudhoyono’s swift reprisal. He told The Diplomat that “the president is under fire in Indonesia as being something of a lame duck coming to the end of his term.” Already, Yudhoyono’s ailing Democratic Party is reported to have benefited in the polls from his strong stance against Australia.
Restoring a closer and more cooperative relationship with Jakarta is essential for Australia’s economic and geo-strategic interests in coming decades. The archipelago is the world’s third largest democracy, the most populous Islamic nation on earth, and straddles key shipping lanes in Southeast Asia. As Professor Lindsey put it: “Australian cannot do with Indonesia, while Indonesia could do without Australia.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
As a modern democracy on Australia’s doorstop, Indonesia’s influence in Southeast Asia is vital to Australia’s involvement in the region. David Hill, a Professor of Southeast Asian Studies and Chair of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University, told The Diplomat that “Indonesia is rapidly assuming the status of a substantial player in the region and a substantial economic and political influence. Having Indonesia as a friend at the diplomatic table is greatly beneficial for Australia,”
But while a productive relationship may be vital for Australia’s strategic interests, the Australian public remains unfamiliar with its northern neighbor and prone to negative stereotypes. Research commissioned by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade revealed that only 47 percent of Australians believed Indonesia was a democracy, and 30 percent failed to recognize that Bali – a popular tourist destination for Australians – was part of Indonesia. While some 15,000 Indonesian students study in Australia, the number of Australians studying in Indonesia is in the dozens.
Indonesia’s economy may have slowed in recent months, with second quarter GDP growth falling to 5.81 percent, down from 6.03 percent in the first quarter, but the nation of 246 million people remains an important export market for Australia’s agriculture and mineral industries. The Gillard government’s suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011 may have strained relations with Australia’s tenth largest export market, but demand for Australian cattle and beef remains relatively strong.
The immediate future of diplomatic relations between the two nations will be determined by both the contents of a letter sent by Abbott to Indonesia explaining the espionage revelations, and more significantly by the reaction of the Indonesian government. Yudhoyono has not yet made the diplomatic letter public and may not choose to do so.
For now, as Professor Hill notes, “It is not in the interests of either community to have a prolonged rift between governments spill over into much broader people-to-people relations. One would imagine that is in the minds of all leaders concerned.”
Henry Belot is a freelance journalist who has worked in both Jakarta and Melbourne.