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Indonesia and Australia: Appealing to Jakarta’s strengths

28 Feb 2015
Greta Nabbs-Keller
Image credit: Flickr (Eduardo M. C) Creative Commons.
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Joko Widodo was elected on the policy platform of defending Indonesia’s political sovereignty and territorial integrity, with a good dose of economic nationalism thrown in. That policy platform now manifests itself in a range of policy areas, most prominently in its sinking of foreign illegal fishing vessels in Indonesian waters and now in the country’s apparent resolve on death row executions.

The interplay of domestic politics and sovereignty in Indonesia’s current political climate render many of the inducements outlined respectively by Peter Jennings and Peter McCawley redundant. It’s highly unlikely, for example, that Indonesia would accept Australia’s intercession ‘with, and on behalf of, Indonesia in their diplomatic actions to stop their citizens being subjected to the death penalty around the world’, as proposed by Jennings. For a country that freed itself from the shackles of western colonialism within living memory, the idea of western states advocating on Indonesia’s behalf wouldn’t sit well.

But there are other reasons also why Jennings’ low-visibility, positive inducements would be ineffective. ‘Active third-party advocacy to support Indonesian ambitions for greater influence in multilateral forums’, doesn’t take sufficient account of Indonesia’s diplomatic history. Multilateralism’s in Indonesia’s DNA, and there are probably few Australians who really appreciate Indonesia’s proprietorial view of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or its efforts to maintain ASEAN’s centrality in East Asia’s multilateral architecture as a basis for preserving Southeast Asia’s political autonomy vis-à-vis major powers. Nor do many Australians probably appreciate the extent to which concerns about China’s growing economic and political power has preoccupied Indonesia’s foreign policy intellectuals for close to four decades and thus shaped Indonesia’s active approach to regional multilateralism.

Meanwhile, the country’s strategic importance astride vital sea lanes connecting the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea, translates to increasing attention from major powers vying for influence in Southeast Asia. Basic demographics, a shift in global economic influence and geopolitical factors in Indonesia’s favour render the negative inducements open to Australia (sanctions, cutting defence and intelligence cooperation) largely redundant. Without denigrating the substantive development assistance and security cooperation proffered by Australia to Indonesia, the reality is that Australia probably can’t provide any inducement that Indonesia couldn’t source elsewhere from more influential actors -such as the US, Japan, China, South Korea and Russia.

In response to Jennings, McCawley outlined some policy options available to Jakarta if it ‘wanted to offer an olive branch to Australia’. These ‘positive inducements’ included the abolition of the death penalty along with new support for the Colombo Plan, improved visa access for Australians and expediting negotiations on the Australian Indonesian Economic Partnership Agreement (AIEPA). But Jakarta hasn’t been in any mood to do Canberra favours since spying allegations erupted in November 2013, as Jennings rightly acknowledged. It’s difficult to comprehend why Jakarta would link its abolition of the death penalty to progress on other areas of the bilateral relationship, when the death penalty isn’t a bilateral issue per se, but tied more to Jokowi’s domestic political legitimacy.

So what options does this leave Australia? First, it’s vital, in the interests of Chan and Sukumaran, that other aspects of bilateral engagement are totally disaggregated from the death penalty debate. A growing diplomatic conflagration only makes it less likely that Widodo will have a change of heart. Second, Australia should appeal to Indonesia’s strengths and avoid talk of punitive measures or aid conditionality. It’s an appeal for Indonesia to build on the legacy of its reformasiprocess which may best serve the interests of Chan and Sukumaran.

Canberra might remind Jakarta of its proud record on human rights promotion, not just with respect to its citizens in trouble overseas, but its strong normative leadership in ASEAN and in the Bali Democracy Forum.

Remarkably early in Indonesia’s democratisation process, Jakarta championed the promotion of democratic and human rights norms in ASEAN. Through dogged determination, largely by former foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda, and by virtue of the country’s leading status in the grouping, Indonesia moved ASEAN forward on a human rights declaration and commitment to new institutional structures (the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children). This was achieved in the face of considerable unease and resistance on the part of ASEAN’s more authoritarian members such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Rather than a sign of weakness, a willingness by President Widodo to reconsider the death penalty, would be a tough decision domestically in the short term, but in the longer term would ultimately boost his democratic political legitimacy to both domestic and international constituencies. This isn’t a favour to Australia, but a test of Widodo’s commitment to Indonesia’s democratic future.

Greta Nabbs-Keller is the director of Dragonminster Consulting, a Brisbane-based company providing Indonesia expertise to government and private sector clients. She is a non-resident research fellow of the Perth USAsia Centre. This article was originally published in The Strategist on 23 February 2015. It is republished with permission.