Tue, 09 Nov 1999

Jakarta, Canberra relations can and must be rebuilt

This is the second of two articles based on remarks by former ambassador S. Wiryono at a gathering organized by the Indonesia- Australia Business Council in Jakarta on Nov. 2, 1999.

JAKARTA (JP): Having discussed the role and influence of the media, this question pops up: Under the present difficult circumstances, how do we rebuild the next chapter in our relationship?

There is no question that we cannot continue the relations at this low point forever. It is unnatural for such close neighbors. Sooner or later, relations will have to improve for the better. The question is: when and how?

The Jakarta government now has to weigh-in the factor of domestic constituencies, some of whom have rightly or wrongly developed strong negative views about Australia.

The new government in Jakarta has also become very sensitized to any foreign gestures suspected as being patronizing or intrusive.

But both Jakarta and Canberra know geopolitical realities dictate that ultimately the interests of both sides lie in closer and stable relations. Stable Australia-Indonesian relations are also important for the region of Southeast Asia in general.

Our close cooperation in the Cambodian peace process, in the development of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional forum, in the United Nations, in the ever-growing trade and economic relations prior to the crisis, all attest to this thesis. We have much to gain by cooperation and close relations, and much to lose by their absence.

In this, the vast network of personal relations between Indonesian and Australian government officials, opinion-makers, academics, military officers and businessmen, which have taken years to cultivate, will become the most important asset in rebuilding this relationship.

If events in the past few months have taught us anything, it is that our relations are a two-way street, and that friendship, trust and confidence must be gained the hard, old fashioned way -- they must be earned.

In as much as domestic sentiments matter, our governments must also resist temptations to sacrifice our bilateral relations at the altar of domestic politics.

Over the years, the relationship between Indonesia and Australia has been growing, despite the fact that it is accident- prone and has the tendency to behave like a roller-coaster. After climbing up slowly, it can suddenly dive. So the challenge is how to make it stable.

Before the current crisis, I was under the impression that its maturity was stabilizing, but the shock that it has suffered recently has been deep. The feeling of hurt on the Indonesian side is widespread, and is basically caused by the perceived "insensitiveness", "intrusiveness" and "boastfulness" of the Australian side.

Be that as it may, the relationship can and must be rebuilt, not only for the sake of bilateral relations but also for regional stability. And there are reasons to be optimistic:

First, the two countries remain committed to the integration process of the economies of the Asia Pacific region (APEC). We in Indonesia of course acknowledge that Australia's role in the formation of APEC has been pivotal.

Second, the two countries continue to be committed and share the responsibility for contributing to regional security and regional (SEA) stability. There are regional forums in which the two countries continue to be engaged. Essential to regional stability are sound Australia-Indonesian relations.

Third, the economic, business and cultural complimentarily remain in place but need to be nurtured. While current interaction in trade, education, culture and tourism are slowing down, these areas of cooperation continue to have high potential. In time the wounds will heal and mutual respect will be restored between the two countries.

However, I also realize that our relationship is so complex that no one can claim to have a complete picture. Therefore, men and women of goodwill on both sides of the relationship need to discuss and share objective observations and useful insights to be better equipped to help chart the course of our future and more stable relationship.

A few observations would be helpful in avoiding the pitfalls of our accident-prone relationship.

First, the return of Indonesia to democracy, stability and a healthy economy is best for Australia, our neighbor and the world. Clearly, what happens in Indonesia affects our neighbor. The democratization process in Indonesia is still consolidating what will hopefully lead to a stable situation that in turn will lead to faster economic recovery.

Second, developments in Indonesia are interesting subject to scrutiny, but an overmuscular approach in scrutinizing Indonesia by both government and non-governmental organizations, as well as the media, can be counterproductive and could lead to an Indonesia that feels unjustifiably pushed around. A more constructive approach is needed.

On the other hand, Indonesians also need to accustom themselves to strong criticism and not to be oversensitive with criticism.

Third, the new leadership of Indonesia inherited an economy that has been partly stabilized and rebuilt, but the crisis is not over yet and the bleeding continues.

The challenges that still lie ahead are formidable. Indonesia clearly needs the assistance and understanding from its neighbors and the international community. Australia in the past has stated that she is not just a fair weather friend of Indonesia, but a friend for all weather, in good times and in bad times. The test of friendship is indeed in times of need. This is the right time to prove that such an adage holds true for Indonesia-Australia relations.