For those interested in the recent diplomatic fracas between Australia and Indonesia I would like to offer some perspective.
I was a youth ambassador to Indonesia with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade AIYEP program during the twilight years of the Suharto regime. One of the most important things learned through that experience was the high value placed by Javanese society on the concept of gotong royong. Indonesia’s civic values come from the reality of village life – everyone is interdependent and everyone has to get along. Gotong royong means coming a decision through respectful dialogue with the aim of reaching the broadest possible consensus. The final decision may be made by the village head (Pak Raja) and there may be strong disagreements along the way, but once the decision is made everyone is expected to fall into line and get along. It is rather different from the adversarial approach which developed in the West as a way of mediating unresolvable conflicts between the monarchy, the Parliament, and the different orders of society.
Under Suharto gotong royong was used in a perverse way to stifle dissent (as I am sure the occasional Pak Raja has done too) but although Indonesia is now a democracy gotong royong remains a core value of the society.
Indonesia doesn’t really care how rude Australians are to one-another. Westerners can’t be expected to behave properly, but Indonesia does expect maturity in international relations – which is why you can’t announce that you are going to “turn the boats around” if the country you are sending them back to hasn’t been part of that discussion as an equal partner.
Abbott is the antithesis of gotong royong. Indonesia had already rebuffed him over boat people. Revelations of phone tapping simply added injury to insult. So what does SBY gain from ramping up the rhetoric? After-all, the relationship is worth half a billion dollars in aid money to Indonesia each year alone.
Well, actually SBY gains a lot. ASEAN countries correctly perceive Australia as North America’s lap dog in Asia. Indonesia is the world’s biggest Muslim country. By humbling America’s lap dog in Asia Indonesia gains status within ASEAN. It says “we are here, we matter, we are a player”. It sends a message to both Australia and the US that Indonesia will not be dictated to. It also sends an important message to Australia: “We matter. You may be Europeans in Asia but you are in Asia and you must do things the Asian way. There is a big country to your North and you need to consider it carefully.” There is also another, perhaps unintended message: “you just elected an amateur for PM.”
In the nearly 20 years since I was in Indonesia Australia’s understanding of that country has grown little. Doubtless many Indonesian villagers still get their perception of Westerners from C grade American television from which they learn that we are all rich, greedy and promiscuous. However the Indonesian elite have grown to understand Australian society very well, mostly by virtue of living and studying here, but also through trade and diplomatic ties, and cultural exchange. They know our pressure points.
Eventually we will return to a reasonable dialogue, and we will all, like squabbling villagers, get busy getting along. SBY will emerge as the Pak Raja who brought the consensus about. Abbott will look foolish even though the spy scandal was none of his making.
In the longer term Indonesia appears to be embarking on a policy of military and diplomatic containment of its troublesome southern neighbour – but first it has to contain Abbott.