Australian Foreign Affairs panel discussion: Indonesia and Australia – Can we be friends?

For those who care about the relationship between Indonesia and Australia, it is a perennial question: can the two nations, who are so physically close, be true friends? Can they find a way to get past the differences which seem to keep them apart and learn to work together in a more constructive and mutually beneficial way?

It was the question posed at a panel discussion in Melbourne to mark the launch of the Australian Foreign Affairs 3rd edition, which examines the relationship through four essays.

Special guest at the panel was the Honorable Gareth Evans AC QC, whose time as Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs saw him grapple head-on with the relationship and the impact of it at home, once famously said that “we are as comprehensively unlike as any neighbours in the world.“

He points out that the two nations are different in so many ways – culture, religion, language, ethnicity, population, size, history, and in political, legal and social systems – “… it’s a bit of a miracle I suppose that we can get off the ground at all!”

However, he and his Indonesian counterpart at the time still managed to draw-up a landmark regional security agreement. And according to Evans, recent efforts by the two countries to combat extremist movements and terrorism point to an ability to work together. The collaborations are “a signal of how we can cut through the indifference in the wider relationship and make something substantial of it.”

However, indifference is a marker of the relationship, and a hurdle to an improvement in it.

Polls by the Lowy Institute show that in 2018 24% of Australians agreed that Indonesia is a democracy. In 2017 that number was 27%. This is despite Indonesia being a democracy since 1998 and evolving to a point in 2014 of electing a President who was not part of the inner networks of the military or political elite.

And the Perceptions Report by the Australia-Indonesia Centre in 2016 found that only one in five Australians (19%) feel they have “a good knowledge and understanding” of Indonesia.

This indifference also works the other way, according to former Chief Editor of The Jakarta Post Endy Bayuni. He points out in his Australian Foreign Affairs essay in that “The old view of Australia as a white man’s colony in Asia still remains dominant, and Indonesian political leaders often play this up, exploiting the public’s ignorance whenever the two countries become entangled in another dispute.”

One way through this will be when our differences dissipate, as Australia’s cultural diversity forces it to be more comfortable with Asian culture, and the gap narrows between the historically rich and poorer nation.

Indonesia’s economy is projected to leapfrog Australia in total GDP terms to join the world’s top ten nations sometime between 2020 and 2030, as Jennifer Rayner points out in her essay. She writes that “Australia cannot properly move forward in its relationship with Indonesia until we acknowledge how far it has come, and how this changes the balance of power we’ve imagined exists between us.”

Endy Bayuni thinks that greater understanding will be difficult to achieve. He writes, “Until Indonesia trades more with Australia, and until Indonesia see more Australian investment, the Indonesian view of Australia as barely relevant will likely remain.” This is why the current free-trade agreement (IA-CEPA) now being negotiated is seen by many as a vital step forward. Whether it will be an agreement that delivers is still unclear.

In the midst of all this change are signs that need to be acknowledged and discussed if Australia is to have any level of sophistication in its relationship.

During the panel discussion, Professor Tim Lindsey AO told the audience this is particularly pertinent now. The emergence of conservative political class in Indonesia (part of a global trend) also comes at a time of Indonesia’s rising economic power.

Professor Lindsey has written and spoken extensively about the example of Indonesia as a tolerant and liberal democracy in a Muslim majority nation being under threat, which is different to its democracy being under threat.

“I don’t think Indonesian democracy is under threat,” he said.  “I think electoral procedural democracy is rock-solid in Indonesia. One of the reasons for that is that the elites, oligarchs, political party leaders, regime survivors, have worked out they can win elections. And one of the ways they do that is identity politics of religion and ethnicity.”

Recent political campaigns have been using race and religion in some areas to gain public attention, and votes. And there has been a disturbing movement against minorities, including attacks on religious and social minorities.


Panelist Dr Nasya Bahfen of La Trobe University has been documenting this phenomenon, and told the audience of her concerns about it. However, she added that Australia’s simplistic understanding of Indonesia is holding back the formation of a potentially beneficial relationship.

“It doesn’t help that the country recently jailed a Christian Chinese Governor of the capital,” she said. “Those perceptions are not helpful. But, the reality is that [Indonesia is] not Saudi Arabia. And sections of the Australian media, sections of the Australian public, are not able to differentiate that.”

“That’s certainly a barrier to things like tourism. When Japan and Korea understand that Indonesia’s middle class is growing, they try to take advantage of that. Basically, what any other economy in the world would do.”

Dr Bahfen gave the example of South Korean fried chicken brands which have gone halal to cater for the number of Indonesian and Malaysian students in Australia – “There’s a market there.”

Asked about the many efforts being made to improve the relationship, Professor Lindsey suggests their effect is minimal, considering a nation of 270 million people.

“Our bilateral relationship is a pretty weak one, it should be much better than it is,” he said. “There is huge potential, there are many linkages between the two communities, but they are all tiny. If you name almost any initiative that could be done to strengthen ties in arts, in youth, in trade, in communications, whatever it might be, it has been done or is being done somewhere between the two countries. The problem is that the scale is grossly inadequate.”

He believes it would take concerted effort and resources, especially by government, to address the perceptions gap in realistic and useful ways.

Professor Evans had a different view about where Australia and Indonesia could work together. Similar to observations made by Hugh White from the ANU, he sees the growing influence of China in the region, a US pull-back, and global uncertainty leading to a new dynamic between the two nations.

“This notion that Indonesia doesn’t really need [Australia] is perfectly true so far as trade and investment are concerned and perfectly true so in the sense of relevance and cultural identity,” Evans said, “but in the changing geopolitical environment things could well change quite dramatically, quite quickly.”

“If Indonesia comes under more pressure in Natuna Islands or in its fisheries, Indonesia might be looking closely at who its friends are, and Australia is a serious player with capabilities in the region.”

Professor Evans said that this new environment could put pressure on Australia and Indonesia to work together more closely, and there is a growing awareness of this scenario in both countries.

“We shouldn’t get too spooked by some things that don’t look too flash at the moment,” he advises, “and focus on the huge potential.”

Helen Brown