Thursday, April 20, 2006

Time for a timor-sea change on Indonesia policy?

There are a set of core beliefs that underpin our consistently one-sided relationship with Indonesia, a relationship I've generally supported but am now starting to question on a fundamental level. We need Indonesia more than they need us, any breakup of Indonesia would be bad for us, we can't deal with a defence threat from Indonesia, we have to seek a strong relationship with them due to geography, and underpinning it all an optimism that if we do enough to please them; teach Indonesian in schools, visit in droves and spend money, assist with disasters and give money, and train their vile paramilitary terrorists, they will eventually come to like us.

All of these are clearly up for debate. There is something to be said for 'keeping your enemies closer'. There is also no point in seeking a hostile relationship- Indonesia may be disorganised and relatively poor but with 200 million people we aren't in a position to engage it in military conflict. But would we be best of going totally cold, seeking no benefit or closeness from the relationship, warning tourists and businesses who go there that they accept their own risk, and politely telling them we mind our own business when they get shirty about our accepting refugees from whichever of their colonial provinces they start oppressing next?

Indonesia, the political entity, is for all intents and purposes a Javanese empire, a failure in decolonisation supported by the myopic racism of the UN. Rather than distinct entities like Flores, Sumba, Bali and distinct 'nations' within Sulawesi getting to 'self determine' in accordance with what is supposed to be a 'right of erga omnes' (see the Roman Gold case, ICJ) they go from one master to another. To be fair, most are not agitating for independence and self determination includes the right to stay within a wider national entity, but in considering the plight of those who aren't happy, and in weighing up the alternatives, we need to bear in mind that it is not a homogenous nation. And in the East, the bit closest to us, much of the sparsely populated land is christian or even animist.

I would never argue that we should disengage from Asia, but are we excessively obsessed with being close to our nearest neighbours? Due to history, geopolitical interests, and even just relative similarities in culture we will find some countries much easier to get along with than others. We have good relationships with Singapore, Thailand, China and ironically Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Not too bad with the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. But the Malays constantly elude us, and maybe they will continue to do so in Malaysia, Indonesia and any other malay-islamic nation that should spring up in the future.

We are equally part of the South Pacific, but have less focus there due to perceived economic advantages to an Asia focus. We walk a fine line with interventions such as that in the Solomons, but we are there because we've been asked, and I think generally we are seen as benign and reasonably friendly in that region.

PNG is the one country so close we can't afford to be hated by, and we get along pretty well. They need us, especially with the Indonesian army patrolling along their border.

Maybe we can trade, holiday and generally interact with the rest of the world around Indonesia. Maybe we don't need them any more than they seem to (not) need us.

And maybe if they did break up, and we ended up with little island nations like Sumba and Flores on our doorstep, this would not be the recipe for endless horror we've always assumed.
I'm not there yet, I think we should pursue firm diplomacy that continues to place importance on the relationship (while telling them they can dictate our migration policy when we can write their criminal laws), but it is clearly time for serious academic and policy consideration of the alternatives.

(Sorry about the long sparse posts, hoping normality will resume asap, I'm not on the verge of giving this site up or anything!)


Guy said...

I think realistically speaking we are between a rock and a hard place with Indonesia. We do not have the authority or power to be telling them what they should or shouldn't be doing. We can profer advice, but need to do so in a very diplomatic way. On the flip side of the coin, we don't want to merely agree with everything the Indonesian government says, simply because we are too meek to say otherwise.

Somewhere therein is a happy medium. I'm not sure that any Australia Federal Government has managed to find it. It may well be that Indonesia is destined to be a friend of Australia, but not a friend in the same way as some other countries in the region that more closely share our political beliefs and ideals.

Splatterbottom said...

Maybe we are headed in that direction. What John Howard did is reverse the 'suck up to Indonesia at all costs' policy instigated by the blessed St Gough all those years ago.

Now we only suck up to Indonesia most of the time. I suppose it is an improvements.

Isn't the point of all diplomacy to maximise the co-operation as far as trade and such like, and only fight when it is absolutely necessary.

russ said...

Good post Armaniac.

I am curious about one thing though: where do you see the Indonesian empire going over the long term (let's say the next 200 years). Because, historically, empires expand while the centre is stronger than the periphery, and lose provinces when those provinces can break free of a stagnating centre. To me, Indonesia seems closer to the former, and yet it acts more like the latter. So what gives? Was East Timor an anomaly in an otherwise ongoing process of nation building through homogenisation (a process we tend to be a bit squeamish about nowadays). Or will Indonesia break up, leaving us with a collection of small islands for neighbours, some of which will undoubtedly be very poor and/or unstable.

Rob M said...

Indonesia does not represent a defense threat to Australia, now or for many decades into the future, regardless of their attitudes towards us, good, bad, or indifferent.

Indonesia may have a very large army, but they have bugger-all navy and air force, and they won't be able to afford to match Australia's for decades, even assuming moderately competant management of the Indonesian economy. An invasion across the Timor Sea would represent a huge power-projection challenge; without aircraft carriers to provide air support, or at the very least a huge mass of refuelling tankers (Indonesia doesn't have those either) it'd be impossible. They'd be target practice. About all they could do is interfere with maritime trade; doing so would likely ensure a short and exciting life for the Indonesian Navy, not just from us but from the customers with whom we trade.

Ultimately, Australia would also have the option of building nuclear weapons if we ever felt seriously threatened by Indonesia. Sure, it's highly unlikely, but if we really did feel threatened we certainly *could* do so, and we could do it pretty damn quickly. And it would completely put an end to any notion of Indonesia militarily threatening Australia.

While we do have security interests in not having our neighbours turn into lawless badlands (well any more lawless badlands than they already are) the idea that we need to be paranoid about the yellow hordes to the north coming to invade us does not reflect the reality: we spend more than enough money on high-tech defence toys to ensure that's not a problem.

Diplomatic and economic consequences from telling the Indonesians to stick it; undoubtedly. Drastic security risks? Hardly.

Rob M said...

Further to this, I looked into the potential leverage that the realpolitik crowd worries about: in my view it's an empty threat.

Anonymous said...

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