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A very difficult relationship: living with Indonesia

By Richard Woolcott - posted Friday, 4 August 2006

Australia must pursue a more balanced, less self-righteous and more understanding approach to its vital relationship with Indonesia.

With the democratic election of a parliament and President Yudhoyono, Australia’s relationship with Indonesia has become much more complex and less predictable - and even more in need of sophisticated management and greater public understanding than ever before.

Moreover, because of Indonesia’s size and proximity, our relationship is more immediate than our other major relationships such as those with China, Japan, the US, and India.


It would be foolish, therefore, if we were to downplay the importance, the opportunities, and the potential for us in our immediate northern neighbour, as we did in the late 1990s.

The late 1990s and early 2000s was a period of upheaval in Indonesia before President Yudhoyono’s election in 2004. To many Australians, Indonesia appeared to be more unstable, more unpredictable, and generally less important than it had been throughout the 1980s to the mid-1990s - except for the need to co-operate in combating people smuggling and terrorism.

Such an attitude was short-sighted and mistaken.

There are five guidelines, or markers, on how I consider Australians - including the Government and the Opposition - should handle our relationship with Indonesia in the future.

First, we should not expect too much too quickly from President Yudhoyono’s Government.

When the former US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, visited Sydney last year he described Indonesia as “a fantastic success” because it had become a democracy, and because of President Yudhoyono’s close connections with America and his government’s opposition to Islamic extremism.


In reality, President Yudhoyono is a cautious consensus-builder who calculates what he can do politically and what he thinks would be too disruptive to attempt. Indonesia is a fragile democracy, with President Yudhoyono’s party holding only 55 seats in the Indonesian Parliament of 550 members. He derives his strength from the size of his popular mandate rather than his parliamentary support.

Countries like Australia sometimes overlook how long it can take to fashion a stable democracy, and Indonesia deserves more credit than it has been given for the political reforms that have taken root in the past few years.

The second marker is Islam.

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Article edited by Allan Sharp.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited and abridged version of Richard Woolcott’s speech to the Jesuit Social Justice Centre at Xavier College, Melbourne, on August 2, 2006. Read the complete speech here.

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About the Author

Richard Woolcott AC was Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 1988 to 1992. Prior to that he served as Commissioner in Singapore, High Commissioner in Ghana, Ambassador to the Philippines, Ambassador to Indonesia, Deputy to the High Commissioner in Malaysia, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1982-1988), and as a member of the Advisory Panel for the first Government White Paper on Foreign and Trade Policy (1997). He divides his time between Sydney and Canberra.

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