A lot has been said in the news recently about Australian relations with Indonesia. Largely revolving around asylum seekers and Tony Abbott’s pledge to ‘Turn Back the Boats,’ there has been a mood of looming crisis between the two countries. Indonesia has criticised the Coalition policy, showing just how difficult the issue is. With Abbott now in Indonesia, it will be interesting to see what his skills as a foreign affairs leader are like.
While this is a key moment in our relations with one of our closest neighbours, I thought I’d put it into perspective by looking at other moments where Australia and Indonesia didn’t see eye to eye.
West New Guinea
After playing an important role in assisting with Indonesian independence in 1949, relations between Australia and Indonesia soured over the status of West New Guinea. Australia was anxious to prevent Indonesia from taking over the region, partly owing to its own colonial concerns next door in Papua and New Guinea.
Differences existed for over a decade, until a US supported deal saw WNG become part of Indonesia in 1963. Australia’s fears of an expansionist Indonesia were largely unfounded (a trend that would repeat itself), but this was the first of a regular series of moments that pushed Australian-Indonesian relations.
At a very similar time to the disagreement over WNG, tensions grew over the Indonesian reaction to the creation of Malaysia. Sukarno initiated a policy of ‘Confrontation’ that actually led to direct conflict between Australian and Indonesia forces.
Eventually the dispute was settled, largely due to the overthrow of Sukarno and the rise of a right-wing military dictatorship led by Suharto (leading to a genocide of over a million ‘communists’). Suharto, with his anti-communist views proved much more satisfying to American and Australian policymakers who were concerned about Sukarno’s unpredictability.
Once again, crisis loomed and was ultimately avoided.
East Timor and its Aftermath
In 1975, following the withdrawal of Portuguese rule, East Timor was invaded and ultimately incorporated into Indonesia. Australia was forewarned about this and effectively did nothing to stop it, despite 5 Australian journalists being killed.
Fast forward almost 25 years and Australia became heavily involved in assisting East Timor gain its independence, as part of a UN operation.
This policy coincided with considerable upheaval in Indonesia, as the Suharto regime collapsed, and terrorist activity affected Australia in 2002 and 2004.
All combined, this led to what has been referred to as ‘probably the lowest period in Australian-Indonesian relations.’Despite this, relations have improved, only to be pushed by the recent developments.
So the rollercoaster ride of Australian relations with Indonesia continues. Will Tony Abbott be able to keep things going smoothly or are we due for another series of strongly worded threats? I’m curious to see how Abbott can reconcile his strong words at home with the need for diplomacy overseas.