Abbott's Indonesia Gaffe

With Tony Abbott promising to make Indonesia his first state visit, Indonesia is waiting to see if the new Conservative Australian premier will instead put a priority on Australia's relationships with the United States and United Kingdom before turning his diplomatic attention to Asia.

The change of leadership in Canberra has changed the Indonesia-Australia relationship in both context and tone, although it remains high on Australia's foreign policy agenda despite Abbott's already rattling of Indonesian cages with controversial electoral campaign rhetoric.

During the campaign, Abbott put Indonesia on guard with proposals to "turn back boats," to "buy back boats," as well as promising massive cuts to foreign aid worth between a$3.5 and 4.5 billion, of which Indonesia is Australia's biggest aid recipient.

A Sept. 8 Kompas report highlighted Indonesia's wariness to see whether Abbott will follow in his conservative predecessor John Howard's footsteps, tailing the US and England as a good ally, but also reasoned that his lack of desire for offensive strikes on Syria indicates at least that the new government might be less comfortable with supporting foreign invasions.

The relationship between Australia and Indonesia during the past six years of Labor government was warm and cooperative, an improvement from the low-level tension of the former Howard government's so called "megaphone diplomacy" and involvement in East Timor's struggle for independence. The previous Labor government's two Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard maintained working relationships with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Progress on any issue with Indonesia is usually gradual and cannot be forced with sound bites and cavalier policy. Abbott has clearly changed the character of the relationship, and whether that will result in continued neighborliness remains to be seen.

"Tony Abbott said the government will mobilize the military to evict asylum seeker boats who want to enter Australian territory," Kompas journalist Sastra Wijaya wrote. "This policy doesn't directly concern Indonesia, but because many asylum seeker boats originate from Indonesia, Jakarta's reaction so far has not been positive for Abbott's initiative."

The discourse underlines potentially conflicting diplomatic messages between a prominent visit to Indonesia to cement Indonesia's significance to Australia on one hand and turning back boats to throw the problem back to Indonesia on the other.

Indonesia has often said that as a destination country Australia needs to take a certain amount of responsibility for those trying to get there, so turning boats around and sending them back is a brazen denial of cooperation. With the appointment of a more inward-looking conservative government on the cards, Indonesia is cagily scrutinising how committed the incoming coalition will be to its still developing relationships with Asian states rather than its traditional western friends the US and UK.

According to the former Ambassador to Indonesia, John McCarthy, SBY is very serious about the Australia-Indonesia relationship and will "take a lot of trouble with Tony Abbott." Abbott, he told reporters, "is a very junior leader in the region whereas SBY is a very senior leader so this needs to be reflected in his demeanor and tone, that's just how it works in the region."

Indeed, and most significant to Indonesia are potential assaults on its sovereignty. Abbott raised hackles when he proposed not only buying back fishing boats but commissioning villagers as "wardens" to spy on and weed out people smugglers.

Indonesian lawmakers from across parties responded scathingly. Mahfudz Siddiq, head of the Indonesian parliament's foreign affairs commission said it was a crazy idea that was deeply offensive to the dignity of Indonesians.

"Obviously he (Abbott) doesn't understand diplomacy or bilateral cooperation... Indonesia is not Australia's colony whose people can be bought for another country's interest," Siddiq told local media.

Abbott has not yet grasped the subtleties of relations with Indonesia or made allowances for the power of vested interests and conflict that perpetuate the country's status as a mass transit point, or even that Indonesia has a vast array of other domestic priorities.

"It is absolutely in Indonesia's interest to stop the boats, I have no reason to think that the Indonesians won't be prepared to work cooperatively and constructively with us," Abbott told reporters.

However both Abbott's plans to send back and buy back boats were challenged in Jakarta, demonstrating that any plan to address a regional issue must involve Indonesia's consideration and input or risk undermining the relationship.

Radio National Australia's Indonesian version reported Norman Abjorensen, from the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, suggesting that, "Abbott should try to improve relations with Indonesia, following his promise to send Australian police to Indonesia, as well as plans to buy asylum seekers boats to avoid use by people smugglers."

During the close relationship of the Rudd and Gillard governments with Indonesia, "East Timor" was almost a taboo phrase, and Australia went to great lengths to constantly reassure a still suspicious Indonesia that it fully respected Indonesia's sovereignty over Papua.

Clearly there are lingering sensitivities and a history of friendship and betrayal that require considerable diplomatic attention, a willingness to ignore certain things about each other, and above all to avoid any breaches of sovereign legitimacy.

The recent incursion into Indonesian waters near Papua by Australian activists on the "Freedom Flotilla" ensured a prompt response from the Department of Immigration, with former Foreign Minister Bob Carr making public statements to reassure Indonesia that Australia was still on board.

Meanwhile Yudhoyono was exceedingly stern, issuing a public warning to other countries to not violate his nation's sovereignty. The Papuan provinces, the president said, are part of Indonesia and would stay that way.

Indonesia still bears the psychological national scars of its loss of East Timor due to Australia's interference and is rightly wary of the fact that states act in their own political self-interest, no doubt reinforced by Rudd's surprise move to export asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and Abbott's two aforementioned plans, all motivated by blatant political bids for the leadership.

Australian foreign policy steadfastly supports Indonesia's right of territorial sovereignty over Papua, but it previously supported and benefited from control over East Timor, and the history is enveloped in secrecy and silence.

As of last Saturday's polls, Australia is now more preoccupied with domestic issues, save for asylum seekers, and the controversial policies proposed by Abbott might still come up against problems in the Senate if the gaggle of minority parties gives him grief.

Abbott is aware that he needs to cultivate the Indonesia relationship, albeit from the perspective of his tough border control rhetoric, and deciding to visit Indonesia first is a complimentary way to begin the start of what will hopefully see Abbott and SBY agree to cooperate for the longer term.