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Australia and Indonesia become closer neighbors

Rob Goodfellow, Wollongong, New South Wales.

The author and social commentator Mark Twain once said: “The best things in life are the nearest”. The writer could have easily been talking about the organizational philosophy that inspires members of the Australia-Indonesia Business Council (AIBC) who last week held their national conference in the South Australian capital of Adelaide (Nov. 15-17).

The AIBC (and an Indonesian sister organization, the Indonesia-Australia Business Council or IABC) are national, non-profit business associations established to represent the commercial and trade interests of their respective members. Indeed Australia is one of Indonesia’s largest foreign investors. Today, there are over 400 Australian companies operating across Indonesia with total assets exceeding A$6 billion (Rp 3.1 trillion).

In Adelaide for the conference, Blaine Gordon, President of the AIBC, stressed that Australia should be engaging more extensively with Indonesia in an effort to improve business and cultural ties. Gordon further pointed out that conditions were right for Australians to invest in Indonesia, with economic growth running at 6 percent per annum — distinguished by a reduction in bureaucracy and corruption.

The push for better people-to-people understanding across a wide range of cultural quarters — of which “business culture” is but one aspect, is not only coming from Australia. Earlier this month the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, asked his Ambassadors to play an active role in developing such relationships with a view towards creating trade and investment opportunities.

This was reinforced by the three Indonesian Ministers who attended the AIBC conference as special guest speakers, namely, Sri Mulyani Indrawati (Finance), Purnomo Yusgiantoro (Energy and Recourses) and Vice Admiral (ret.) Freddy Numberi (Marine Affairs and Fisheries).

The angst that has so-often characterized the formal relationship between Australia and Indonesia (punctuated by the recent Papuan refugee crisis and the temporary recall of Ambassador Hamzah Thayeb) has clearly caused leaders like Mr. Gordon to draw fresh conclusions. This is especially true of the fact that investment in professional and friendship networks, through people-to-people activities — such as business, represents a sound “investment” in fostering good neighborliness.

Politics on the other hand has not yielded such consistent returns. For example, national politics in Canberra is often interpreted and reported in the Indonesian press as “megaphone diplomacy” and conversely Jakarta politics in the Australian press is often reported as “inscrutable”, “unfathomable” or “extreme”.

In Australia, (which does not share the Indonesian emphasis on consensus-building) politics is almost exclusively adversarial — often typified by short-sighted policies that often last only until the next opinion poll.

For most Australians and Indonesians alike, however, politics represents risk.

Culture, humanitarianism and trade are something Australians and Indonesians have in common. They represent opportunity. This is because friendships, including those forged through the above, tend to endure.

The former Indonesian Tourism Minister I Gede Ardika put this into the perspective of the Australia-Indonesia relationship when he commented some years ago during the Bali Arts Festival: “If we open bilateral dialogue in disagreement, then, it is unlikely we will ever reach our full potential as neighbors. If we focus on the celebration of culture, then we create a relationship based on what we have in common, not what distinguishes us as different or in disagreement”.

Unfortunately, people-to-people relationships are quickly forgotten in the heat of a bi-lateral crisis — largely because the health of the relationship is usually only interpreted through the distorting prism of politics.

Also last week, on the Island of Lombok, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Hassan Wirayuda, hailed the new security pact with Australia as a possible way forward. While political security at a bi-national level is prone to “politicization” — “human security” is less so.

This is because the need for human security is rooted in civil society; it is based on freedom from want and fear. It is in fact a deep strength inherent within the myriad of friendships that quietly exist between ordinary Australians and Indonesians.

“The Australia and Indonesia Framework Agreement for Security Cooperation” — right now more of the head than the heart — recognizes exactly what Mark Twain said about proximity. It goes beyond the classic security-threat-scenarios usually enacted by major powers. It is a bold attempt to embrace a panoply of issues that shape the realities of “nearness” — such as terrorism, climate change, people movement, pandemics, globalization, and the fair distribution of resources. It is an attempt to act like responsible neighbors.

Following the Boxing Day Tsunami, the extraordinary humanitarian concern that every-day Australians demonstrated for their Indonesian brothers and sisters showed that a non-political “language” of regional cooperation was possible. (Australia was actually the largest Tsunami-relief aid donor. This was characterized by the biggest non-government, community fundraising appeal in Australian history.)

If Australians talked the language of “humanitarianism” in the days following Dec. 26, 2004, then last week in Adelaide Mr. Gordon took the important step of making a distinction between politics and civil society, and between political disagreement and business cooperation.

As Gordon suggested: “Many Australian and Indonesian companies and agencies have a long history of close collaboration, and this can be of enormous benefit to new market entrants looking for assistance. In fact, these relationships are strong across the region, and must be continually nurtured”.

Australia needs an advocate to sponsor trade interests across the vast markets of ASEAN. Indonesia needs Australia as a friend to work collaboratively as the region’s politically stable, capital rich, “knowledge economy”. The AIBC’s position on trade and culture could potentially give the security treaty a “heart” by providing the practical means of ensuring that Australia’s most important neighbor remains not only “nearest” but and as the AIBC would wish — prosperous.