This article is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 6: Our Sphere of Influence.
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The Mexicans have a saying that perfectly illustrates the nature of their neighbourhood: So far from God, so close to the United States.
Closer to home, there is a whole body of literature about two other odd neighbours, Indonesia and Australia. In recent decades, a common thesis is that this couple represents a “relationship in recurrent crisis” – a claim based on controversies over issues such as beef, boats, spying and treatment of drug mules and Indonesian fishermen.
But crisis was not the dominant feeling during my five years (from 2005 to 2010) as ambassador in Jakarta. The two countries had fallings-out during those years over the granting of asylum to Papuan Indonesians, New South Wales’ disgraceful treatment of the Jakarta governor during an official visit, and various issues relating to people smuggling. There were certainly moments of bad blood and bruised feelings. On the other hand, there were interactions that generated quite different responses, notably the Australian assistance following the Aceh tsunami in December 2004. It was also a period of joint work in a range of areas, including agriculture, health, regional initiatives and education in eastern Indonesia – the sorts of things that do not often attract headlines.
In Common Enemies, Michael McKenzie deals with developments in the handling of major law-enforcement issues between the two countries since the 1970s. He writes with first-hand experience, both as an officer in the attorney-general’s department in Canberra and as legal counsellor in the Australian embassy in Jakarta.
McKenzie sets out to analyse the extensive cooperation on criminal justice between the two countries, and to make suggestions about strategies for future cooperation. The result is engrossing. He supports his argument with reference to more than one hundred interviews he conducted with Australians and Indonesians involved in areas such as counterterrorism, extradition and people smuggling. The interviews show that what was a modest level of bilateral police cooperation prior to the 2002 Bali bombings has become a relationship of mutual trust and respect. When in Jakarta, I observed the way this relationship worked in the counterterrorism sphere, where the AFP provided intelligence to the Indonesian national police, who acted on it, and rightly gained public acclaim for their successful operations.
The book is at its best in illustrating the ways in which Indonesian and Australian police personnel have interacted with one another over the past twenty years. The interviews evoke the sense of collegiality that has been fostered both by the common objective of preventing crime and by a shared language of law enforcement.
McKenzie argues convincingly that an essential element in the Australia–Indonesia relationship is a perception that the cooperation benefits both countries. This has persisted through periods of tension, such as the acrimony that followed the 2013 allegations of Australian bugging operations targeting Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and senior officials. The value of the relationship has only been questioned when that sense of mutual benefit becomes strained. McKenzie gives as an example a period when Indonesia believed that Australia was not sufficiently expediting extradition requests, despite explanations from Australia about the delays inherent in its legal system. This thesis rings true to me, and reminds me of the way the AFP, proven deliverers for Indonesia in the counterterrorism sphere, secured a high level of engagement from the Indonesian police in anti-people-smuggling work, which was not an Indonesian priority.
To McKenzie, the bilateral relationship has two core dimensions: governmental, involving pursuing political interests, and bureaucratic, involving officials and organisations pursuing policy interests. He argues that there is a tension between these political and policy interests, which results from the differences between the various key players, including private actors such as the media. But he draws perhaps too sharp a line between the interests and actions of what he terms the political and the policy players. His argument is, essentially, that “national politicians are forever playing to their domestic constituencies” and “political parochialism and policy ambition pull against each other”.
McKenzie is undoubtedly correct that from time to time political differences have dogged the pursuit of enduring interests. A scorecard might well include difficulties caused by Indonesia, particularly in its pre-democratic phase, such as hostilities over the birth of Malaysia in the 1960s and the occupation of East Timor from the 1970s, as well as sensitivities over the independence of East Timor in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It would record instances of mutual misunderstanding, for example over the granting of refugee visas to Papuan asylum seekers in 2006. More pointedly, it would also record instances of thoughtlessness, provocation, single-minded pursuit of domestic political agendas and, occasionally, stupidity. Witness Australia’s decision in 2011 to ban live cattle exports to Indonesia; both governments’ ratcheting-up of rhetoric and action over the members of the Bali Nine between 2005 and 2015; the 2018 embassy in Israel affair; and of course boats.
But there would also be high moments, such as our ready assistance to Indonesia after the Aceh tsunami and the economic crises of 1998 and 2008, as well as concerted efforts by Australian governments of all persuasions to promote a substantial relationship with Indonesia. These efforts include the Lombok Treaty on security cooperation, the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement, the New Colombo Plan and the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement. Further remarkable action at the political level has been joint Australian–Indonesian promotion of regional initiatives over the past twenty years in areas such as counterterrorism, sustainable fisheries and disaster preparedness.
Overall, McKenzie provides good evidence for the argument that law-enforcement agencies have, generally, been able to pursue activities of mutual benefit. And in my experience the same is true of working relationships in other areas, as diverse as transport safety and security, immigration processing, government financial services, the functioning of courts and audit offices, and defence and development cooperation.
All this matters because, if anything, Indonesia’s transition to democracy has increased the chances of short-term political differences between the two countries. There was no biting of fingernails on election eve in Jakarta during the thirty-plus years of the autocratic New Order, and the essential bilateral dynamic involved Australia working things out with the Indonesian president. If we had him on board, other institutions generally fell into line; and, on important issues such as APEC, the understandings with Suharto were crucial to Australian aims.
Today, governments in both countries face constant media scrutiny, assertive parliaments and civil society, opinion polls and all the other messiness of democracy. This does sometimes lead to our two countries yelling past each other, but there is also a mutual recognition in our better moments that some things are intended for a domestic audience. And, I would argue, the trials that result from our shared democratic processes are a price we should be prepared to pay. Just as we should – despite the setbacks or crises – continue to work together across a range of mutually beneficial areas.