PETER HARTCHER July 03, 2012
Illustration: Dionne Gain
The Indonesian President has chosen just one city for his three-day visit, and it's not a conventional choice: Darwin. It's partly just the logistics of the journey that make it convenient, but the choice of venue says a great deal more.
"I think it's his way of commenting on the decision to put US Marines near Darwin," an Indonesian diplomat suggests. "He is showing that he's not unhappy" with the move, and might even be endorsing it.
It's hard to see from within Australia, but to the outside world Darwin now symbolises a great deal more than it did before Barack Obama came to Australia last November and announced the Marine deployment.
Indeed, the Lowy Institute's China expert, Linda Jakobson, discovered when she went to Beijing that "the word Darwin has become nearly synonymous with Australia in policy circles".
Before the announcement of the permanent rotating deployment of up to 2500 marines, the China veteran of 20 years found it hard to get the Chinese to talk about Australia as a place of strategic relevance but Obama's visit "has suddenly put Australia on their radar screen", she says.
And Darwin is now the international reference point for Australia taking sides with the US against China in any potential confrontation.
An associate professor of Indonesian politics at the Australian National University, Greg Fealy, concurs with the diplomat about the visit to Darwin by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, universally known as SBY. "Indonesia is ambivalent" about the decision, Fealy says. Recall that Indonesia's first response to the US deployment was to criticise it. The Foreign Affairs Minister, Marty Natalegawa, said it could create a "vicious circle of tensions and mistrust".
But SBY, a former general, soon overrode his chief diplomat. He said Indonesia was not troubled. "I don't think the President is unhappy with the posting of the troops, and Darwin may make a lot of sense to him, especially to a man with his background,'' Fealy says.
"Indonesia doesn't want to get caught up in a great-power battle of wills between the US and China but it is uneasy about China's activities in the South China Sea.
"SBY doesn't see the US troops in Darwin as a threat to Indonesia but it does send a message to China that the US is committed to a continuous presence in south-east Asia, and it's not as demanding as China.
"But don't expect him to say so publicly. There will be nothing explicit; it's implicit. That's his style in foreign affairs and it's exactly where Indonesia wants to position itself."
Yudhoyono certainly didn't select the Northern Territory to maximise the opportunities for his business entourage to spend time with Australian business executives. While big-picture international strategy is the implicit framework for the annual meeting between the leaders of Australia and Indonesia, it will not be the chief talking point.
For the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, domestic political panic over asylum seekers is the priority. She will seek Yudhoyono's help in managing the flow of boat people who travel through Indonesia, and he will do what he can to help.
The Indonesians already do a great deal to deter and intercept the people smugglers who run the trade. The intelligence co-operation against people smugglers is as intensive as it is against terrorists. But for a prime minister who is under pressure at home, the temptation will be to demand the impossible.
The trick is to keep Indonesia in perspective. Australia has always been condescending towards Indonesia. Yudhoyono told the Australian Parliament two years ago that he was "taken aback" by a Lowy Institute poll that found 54 per cent of Australians doubted Indonesia would act responsibly in international relations.
He railed against "the persistence of age-old stereotypes". He pointed out that some Australians still see Indonesia as a military threat, or a hotbed of Islamic extremism.
"We must expunge these preposterous mental caricatures," he urged, arguing that Indonesians, too, had to rid themselves of the image of this country as White Australia. But the truth, if anything, is actually worse. Australia sees Indonesia as inferior - despite the fact that it's the world's fourth most populous nation, with 240 million people; the world's third biggest democracy; the dominant power in south-east Asia, and projected to become one of the world's top 10 economies by 2030, displacing countries such as Italy and Britain. Despite the fact that it's a model for how a majority Muslim nation can build a stable, tolerant, secular and prosperous democracy.
Because Indonesia is such a benign strategic force, Australia has taken it for granted. Paul Keating used to point out that a peaceful, united Indonesia was a force of incalculable strategic value to this country. Fealy points out that today's Indonesia is about as good as it gets for Australia. "Successive Australian governments have been very lucky that SBY has been a very forgiving Indonesian president. After SBY, Australian leaders will start to pay a higher price for lousy diplomacy."
He cites the Gillard government's decision to cut off cattle exports to Indonesia without consultation, for instance, or a future Abbott government's policy of towing back asylum seekers' boats to Indonesia.
Six years ago Australian was the second most-hated country among Indonesians, after the US, a poll by the State Islamic University showed. In last year's poll it was the second most popular country, after Saudi Arabia.
The reason? The university's deputy rector, Makruf Jamhari, says it was largely because of an AusAID program that has helped build more than 2000 primary schools, and also because of a perceived change in Australian attitudes towards Muslims. Indonesian opinion could just as easily revert, of course.
Australia has been lucky with Indonesia, and with SBY's Indonesia in particular. The two governments need to address their day-to-day domestic problems, of course, but, like SBY himself, Australia needs to keep the big strategic picture foremost in mind. Conducting this week's talks in Darwin might help.
Peter Hartcher is the Sydney Morning Herald's international editor.
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