Ask the Prime Minister about the strength of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia and he’ll tell you it’s strong. That’s despite it being sorely tested last year by the Snowden spying revelations, the Coalition’s border protection policies and now by the impending execution of two Australian drug traffickers.
It is surprising then that our relationship with such a close neighbour isn’t strong and warm enough to sustain a little head knocking when it comes to the likely fate of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan now that their pleas to Indonesia’s new, hard-on-drugs President Joko Widodo for clemency have been denied.
The families of the two believe the Prime Minister is doing all he can to spare the lives of their loved ones. Tony Abbott has spoken to and written to President Widodo.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been tirelessly appealing for mercy. But despite the different geo-political reality they face, both the Dutch and the Brazilians went further than chatting, albeit after their nationals had been executed. Both withdrew their ambassadors saying their relationship with Jakarta was now in jeopardy.
Perhaps Australia’s relationship with Jakarta is more fragile than the PM would like to admit. There has always been a tendency to view it as one of ‘challenges’ despite what Mr Abbott says. And the challenges have clearly seeped in to the collective Australian consciousness.
A Lowy Institute survey last year shows that despite Prime Ministers Abbott’s official assessment of our relationship with Jakarta and his enthusiasm for it, we feel warmer towards East Timor, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and even China, than towards Indonesia. China and Japan had equal claim to being Australia’s best friend in Asia.
Indeed, in 2013, a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade survey showed the depth of Australian misunderstanding of Indonesia. A majority thought law making in Indonesia was based on Islamic code while less than 50 per cent believed Indonesia was actually
More startling, fewer than half believed Indonesia was one of the fastest growing economies in the world and a member of the G20.
All of this would be very frustrating for the Australian defence hierarchy, which considers relations with Indonesia to be the most strategically important in the region. And it would be equally as frustrating for the business community concerned at our relatively low level of trade and investment involvement with an emerging market, on our border, set to become the 10th biggest economy in the world.
It’s no doubt frustrating, too, for a government that wants to deepen both the strategic and economic ties between the two countries.
Moreover, it would be far easier to argue the merits of a gently-as-she-goes approach and the wrong-headedness of threatening and coercing the Indonesian government over two drug traffickers if the community felt the relationship warranted protection.
But Mr Abbott has already assertively stated he won’t jeopardise the relationship for Sukumaran and Chan, who are reportedly evidence of all that’s good about the Indonesian penal system’s ability to rehabilitate. All hope now rests with Jakarta suddenly discovering some upside in mercy.
There’s enough history to ensure nervousness in both capitals.
As President Widodo’s relatively new government settles in to dealing with Australia, it will remember the bad blood over Canberra insisting it could turn back boatloads of asylum seekers setting out for Australia and the phone tapping of the Indonesian leadership.
Canberra will have counter-terrorism co-operation and protectionist policies at the forefront of its thinking.
Caught in the middle are Sukumaran and Chan.
Monica Attard is a Sydney-based journalist, writer and former foreign correspondent, reporter and television and radio host at the ABC.