Condemned to Crisis
Will the relationship between Australia and Indonesia always be volatile?

Ken Ward, 2015

Another Lowy Institute monograph from the publishing initiative that gave us The Embarrassed Colonialist, Condemned to Crisis seeks to explain the fractious relationship between Australia and Indonesia, as seen through the eyes of foreign policy veteran, Ken Ward.

Despite the forward-looking subtitle, Condemned is mostly diagnostic, with little in the way of prognosis or prescription. Ward's priority is to lay down a solid description of the relationship, as well as the politics - on both sides of the Timor Sea - responsible for its tensions. Ward takes two key drivers, Australian politicking and Indonesian intransigence, and uses these to build a framework to explain some of the more public crises between the two nations in recent years. The result is a work that is simple yet focused, and which succeeds at making some sense of both Australian and Indonesian foreign policy, though with little applicability outside its specific domain.

The first pillar of this framework is recognising the true origins of most Australian policy regarding Indonesia. When campaigning for the Australian Prime Ministership in 2013, Tony Abbott promised that his foreign policy would be "more Jakarta, less Geneva", a biting rebuke of the Gillard government's futile bid for a seat on the UN Security Council[1]. Despite this pledge, Ward shows that the Abbott government was merely one more in a long line of Australian governments allowing their Indonesian policy to be driven exclusively by domestic political concerns. Rather than Jakarta or Geneva, Australian policy remained mostly Canberra.

Indeed, Abbott would soon aggravate Indonesia with his policy of towing back boatloads of asylum seekers, a key component of his six point plan to Stop the Boats. Accidental incursions into Indonesian waters by Royal Australian Navy vessels involved in the towbacks only further inflamed tensions. When Abbott tried to salvage his failing immigration policy with a campaign to buy Indonesian fishing boats, directly interfering the Indonesian economy without consulting Jakarta, the Indonesian government certainly didn't feel like a valued partner in Australia's regional policy.

We can't lay the blame entirely at the foot of one political party of course, no matter how much that seems to be the natural democratic tendency. On the other side of the parliamentary aisle, the Australian Labor Party infuriated Indonesia in 2011 by banning live cattle exports, a response to domestic outrage over a television exposé of slaughtering practices in Indonesian abattoirs. Paul McCartney has famously said that "if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian". As a vegetarian myself (and as a direct result of this Visiting Enki project in unrelenting autodidacticism[2]), I certainly hope that's the case, but I can't say for certain. What I do know is that for one brief moment in 2011, Indonesian slaughterhouses had glass walls, and it seemed to turn all Australians into marginally ethical eaters, at the very least. Despite the commendable moral stance behind the live export ban, the fact remains that it was enacted for a domestic audience, a piece of foreign policy set with utterly no regard for foreign nations. That the ban came just as poor Indonesians were preparing to purchase expensive beef for the annual Lebaran feast only confirmed that the problems of Indonesians were only a minor concern in Australia's Indonesian policy.

Ofcourse, inflexible Indonesian politics also plays a large part in straining the relationship with Australia, and this is the second element of Ward's framework. Though Indonesia is a disparate coalition of ethnolinguistic minorities, its citizens possess a strong sense of unified national identity, born in the centralised and standardised education system of Dutch colonial rule[3], and later amplified by anti-colonialist revolutionaries who identified political power with the number of citizens they could lay claim to. As with many members of the Non-Aligned Movement, Indonesian politicians have long made electoral hay with demands for great-power status while loudly decrying the influence of other nations. President Sukarno's famous "Go to hell with your aid!" response to US Cold War policy remains a famous expression of this idea all around the globe. Indonesia's status as the most populous and economically powerful nation in South-East Asia only compounds the sense of disrespect that many Indonesians feel, as "a nation of coolies and a coolie amongst nations", as expressed again by President Sukarno.

Ward makes an interesting claim that Indonesia's revolutionary history makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Indonesian leaders to make progress in their negotiations with other nations. Calm and compromising diplomacy does not seem fitting for politicians seeking to inherit Sukarno's rebellious mantle. It's certainly a believable suggestion, but the focus of Condemned is policy rather than sociology, and Ward is far more interested in the consequences of this phenomenon than its causes, or even defending his claims about its existence. Anyone seeking an explanation of Indonesian nationalism should read Imagined Communities (review forthcoming), anyone wanting to understand how Indonesian nationalism effects the stories they see in the newspaper would be well served with Condemned.

These two ideas are the complete theoretical basis of Condemned. With the rest of the book, Ward uses this framework to analyse the major political crises between the two nations in recent years, providing a detailed view of the specifics of these issues while also serving as a tutorial on how to apply the template to newspaper stories in the future.

This simple and specific approach is Condemned's primary virtue, as well as its principal failing. Focused on policy rather than academia, Ward's analysis has little application to other international relationship, and offers little of the deep understanding necessary to make significant change to Australian-Indonesian diplomacy. Though Ward sacrifices complexity, he does so to purchase parsimony, and the result is a short, sharp, readable work, which still provides definite value within it's intended domain. Readers with prestigious degrees in international relations (and I know Visiting Enki has a few of them) will likely find little new in Condemned. However, it provides an accessible overview of an important and little-understood subject, and the value of that is not to be overlooked. Short and highly readable, Condemned would make an excellent addition to Australian high school curricula, and is a productive, albeit not profound, way for anyone to spend an afternoon

The cover image is my own work, a photo of the Buddha statues at the Borobudur temple in Central Java. The statues are headless as the neck is a natural structural weak point, not due to intentional damage. Yogyakarta, the nearby city, is a must see for anyone visiting Indonesia.

  1. The UNSC meet in New York, but that doesn't rhyme. ↩︎

  2. I intend to discuss this more in my forthcoming review of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid ↩︎

  3. This is discussed at length in Benedict Anderson's seminal Imagined Communities. ↩︎