Keynote Address - Asia Society AustralAsia Centre - Asia Foreign Policy Update Luncheon - August 22, 2003

H. E. Dr. N. Hassan Wirajuda, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Republic of Indonesia

H. E. Dr. N. Hassan Wirajuda
Minister for Foreign Affairs, Republic of Indonesia

Melbourne, August 22, 2003

Your Excellencies, Consuls General, Business Leaders and Founding Director of the Asia Society Ambassador Richard Woolcott,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour and pleasure for me to address this gathering of some of the most eminent minds of the Australian nation. For this unique privilege I wish to thank Mr. Richard Woolcott and his colleagues in the Asia Society AustralAsia Centre.

At the same time I should like to commend them for the splendid job they are doing of promoting understanding and goodwill between and among nations of the Asia-Pacific region by organizing events such as the one we are holding today. In that spirit of promoting understanding and goodwill, let me therefore seize this opportunity to share with you a few considered thoughts on the relations between our two countries and their respective roles in our dynamically changing region.

To my mind, the relationship between Australia and Indonesia today must be viewed in the light of a totality that embraces important events in our intertwined post-World War II history, including profound changes that took place in both nations in recent times, and the endeavours that we are undertaking today.

It is by no means a simple relationship. It is complicated by stark differences in our earlier historical backgrounds, and in our respective cultures, traditions and sociopolitical systems. Indonesia, an Asian developing country with the world’s largest Muslim population, a country that is totally identified with non-alignment in global politics, cannot possibly hold views that are always perfectly compatible with those of Australia, a highly developed country with a society of European origin and a political tradition steeped in Westminster-type democracy.

And yet this is not to say that the two cannot work together. There is ample proof in history that we can collaborate with remarkably positive results.

In late 1947, when the fledgling Indonesian Republic was fighting a revolutionary war against the former colonial power, the Australian representative on the United Nations Security Council submitted the Dutch-Indonesian conflict as a case of decolonization. Consequently, a Three-Power Commission was formed to settle the issue and Indonesia requested Australia to be its representative on the Commission. As we all know, that eventually led, after a long diplomatic struggle, to the international recognition of the sovereignty of the Republic of Indonesia.

That started a friendship that has already survived for more than half a century. Over the years, our cooperation in the fields of trade and investment has been mutually beneficial and a significant factor in our respective national development.

We have worked effectively together in many and various multilateral forums. These include APEC, the ASEAN Dialogue process and the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the Southwest Pacific Dialogue forum. In the process we have contributed to the stability and prosperity not only of the Asia-Pacific region but also the world at large.

Having served as Co-chair of the 19-nation Conference on Cambodia in 1991, Indonesia cannot forget that it was an Australian proposal that was key in contributing to the success of the peace process. This is no small contribution to peace in Southeast Asia.

But ours has not always been a smooth friendship; it has had many peaks and valleys and its share of irritants, misunderstandings and even disputes. This may be expected of two countries with hefty differences in background, orientation and perception of issues. And precisely because of these differences, our friendship needs a great deal more of careful nurturing than normally required.

In view of this, I do think that both Australia and Indonesia are called upon to cushion this friendship against the often-harsh dynamics of domestic political debate. For these dynamics have a great impact on the perceptions and attitudes not only of governments but also of peoples. Thus, the state of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia today must be assessed in the light of the far-reaching changes that have taken place in both countries in recent years.

It is a perception that is shared by probably all Asian governments that when the Labour Party took over the reins of state in Australia, there was a shift in the approach to the country’s foreign policy.

The Labour Party had stood on a platform that was “unapologetically committed to (Australia’s) future with Asia.” It held that there was no foreign policy issue facing Australia that was more important than advancing its engagement with Asia. And the initiatives of the Labour Government had left no doubt in the minds of its Asian counterparts that it was truly and deeply committed to such an approach to foreign policy.

When the Liberal Party took over, it was immediately perceived that the Government tended to associate itself with the West, usually with Europe, but in recent times more and more with the United States. This perception did not lose any strength when reports circulated that Prime Minister Howard had voiced Australia’s aspiration to be the sheriff’s deputy of the United States in this part of the world.

In fact, that perception gained force in recent months when the Prime Minister was understood as having intimated that Australia was considering preemptive strikes against terrorist networks in other countries, these countries being probably Asian or Southeast Asian. This is the kind of assertion that Asian nations have come to expect from the United States, but not from a close regional neighbour that is usually more considerate of their sensitivities.

This perception of a fundamental change in approach to Australia’s foreign policy has created a great deal of negative vibrations all over the Asian region, including the Indonesian Government and people.

Indonesia, too, has undergone fundamental change. In the midst of the turmoil of the Asian financial and economic crisis, Indonesia began a process of massive transformation from being a three-decade old military dominated government to being the world’s third largest democracy. The process began with the ascendancy of then Vice President B.J. Habibie to the presidency of the Republic, and we hope to see its full attainment during the tenure of President Megawati Soekarnoputri.

It has not been a comfortable process. We have had to wrestle with an array of formidable challenges, not the least of which was the need to recover fully from the devastation of our national economy. And it was at a time when we were in the grip of economic chaos that we had to suffer another political shock—the separation of East Timor from Indonesia.

Ironically, the East Timor crisis was triggered by a letter that was by no means intended to place us in such a predicament. This was the letter of Prime Minister Howard to President Habibie, which was taken to be a prod toward giving the East Timorese the option of separating from Indonesia. From that point on, a series of events took place, a good number of them involving Australia, leading to the separation of East Timor from Indonesia.

The East Timor crisis has had a deleterious effect on the bilateral relations between the two Governments. It has also eroded the fund of goodwill between the Australian and Indonesian societies in general. So much negative emotion was generated by the crisis that the Security Treaty between the two countries was promptly abrogated and the Fifth Indonesia-Australia Ministerial Forum was considerably delayed.

Australia’s place in the Asian region was also adversely affected. In fact, in the aftermath of the crisis, a number of Asian colleagues were telling me, “I told you so.” Indeed, there had been occasions when they raised eyebrows at our enthusiasm for Australia’s engagement with Asia. And now they saw themselves vindicated in their skepticism.

For until 1999, Indonesia was playing a bridging role for Australia not only in APEC but also in other forums where Australia was keen to associate itself with Asia. I personally know that Indonesia did its best to help Australia join the Asian Regional Conference on Human Rights of 1993. I know also that Indonesia strongly advocated some kind of participation for Australia and New Zealand in the first Asia-Europe Meeting of 1995.

In both cases, Indonesia did not succeed but left little room for doubt among its Asian friends how ardently we supported Australia’s engagement with Asia.

It will take time, but I am confident that all the damaged bridges between Australia and Indonesia, between Australia and Asia, will be repaired. I say this in the light of a more recent experience that almost turned out to be another full-blown crisis.

On the eve of Australian federal elections in 2001, there arose the issue of illegal migrants from Afghanistan and Iraq making their way in large numbers to Australia through Indonesian territorial waters and through Indonesia itself.

Allegations were rife that Indonesia was not doing enough to stem the flow of these illegal migrants to Australia and that Indonesia was to a large extent responsible for so many of them pouring into Australia. Public debate on this concern, billed in the Australian media as the Tampa Crisis, was fiery as it became an election issue at the expense of the bilateral relations between the two countries.

In Indonesia, the reaction was just as emotional, even irrational, with some circles in Parliament and among the public demanding that the Government severe relations with Australia.

There was, of course, a rational approach to solving this problem and fortunately both Governments were alive to it and adopted it as basis for cooperative action. The way out was for us to see the problem of illegal migrants not as a bilateral issue but as one that involves countries of origin, countries of transit and countries of destination. It is therefore an international issue that demands international cooperation for its solution.

Australia and Indonesia then took the logical step: to work closely together with other countries also involved in the problem. Thus we co-sponsored a Regional Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crimes in February 2002.

By taking this approach, we were able to achieve so much more than we could have done if we had tried to solve it individually. The success of this effort was not only terms of the participation of more than 30 ministers from the Asia-Pacific region, but also in terms of actions taken after the meeting by the countries concerned. These greatly helped in stemming of new flows of illegal migrants.

We co-sponsored a second Regional Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling only last April. During this second conference, it was decided that this effort become a continuing regional activity.

In the course of addressing this issue, Australia approached Indonesia about resuming and elevating military relations. Australia proposed joint naval patrols, and the placement of Indonesian officers on Australian naval ships. To us in Indonesia, this has been a very welcome development in the light of the abrogation of the Security Treaty at the height of the East Timor crisis. This is an unmistakable sign of new strength in our bilateral relations.

Another global issue that has brought Australia and Indonesia closer together is the violence being wreaked upon our societies by international terrorism and the impact of its brutality. The Bali tragedy of 12 October 2002, in which more than 200 innocent individuals, mostly Australians, lost their lives, was still fresh in our minds when, early this month, terrorists carried out another dastardly carnage in which ten persons died.

We commiserate with the families and friends of all victims of these terrorist attacks. Some of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes have been brought to justice. We are seeing to it that all of them will have their day in court. And we are grateful to the Government of Australia for its support, its assistance and its cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

Thus, together we are struggling against a formidable enemy that is wily and without compunction. There is no easy way to defeat this threat against the entire human race, but I do believe that Australia and Indonesia are doing the right thing by committing ourselves to work not only with each other but also with all countries, societies, cultures and religions to crush this foe.

In carrying out this fight, Australia and Indonesia co-sponsored a successful Regional Conference on Combating Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing late last year. We have also cooperated in high-level meetings on counter-terrorism.

The MoU signed between our two countries during Prime Minister Howard’s visit to Jakarta in February last year provides a strong basis for joint efforts against terrorism while minimizing the possibility of misunderstanding and disagreements that can affect bilateral relations. That MoU now serves as an excellent model for countries that would similarly cooperate with in combating this threat.

We in Indonesia are now looking forward to the opportunity of working closely with Australia in organizing a Conference on Combating Terrorism.

I am of course aware of the extreme sensitivity of this issue and its potential for misunderstanding, not only between our two Governments but also between our societies.

We have to keep in mind that the population of Indonesia is overwhelmingly Muslim and many Muslim circles all over the world tend to view strong measures in the global fight against terrorism as a ploy of the West against the Islamic world. Australia is culturally Western, to start with, and the more it identifies itself with the West, the more it is subject to suspicion in militant Muslim circles.

Hence, we could have been on a collision course on the issue of terrorism because of differences in perceptions and cultural-religious backgrounds but, as in the case of our cooperation on people smuggling, we were able to transcend our differences and engage in effective cooperation.

There is a positive lesson that can be derived from these experiences: our differences are not so enormous that they cannot be transformed into complementary strengths. If we keep on doing that, we can achieve synergy enough to reach our shared goals and fulfill our common aspirations. All that is needed is for both sides to take a sober, rational approach whenever there is an issue that confronts both of us.

Sometimes that is not so easy to do considering the fact that there are bigots and demagogues in every country, and both Australia and Indonesia now have freewheeling mass media that sometimes produce more fire than light. And in Indonesia there is the added difficulty of our being in a state of transition since 1998.

In this state we have to do so many things at once with so little resources in so short a time. Thus, people become irritable and emotional. They get rattled by conflicting urgent demands. In that state, they can respond to developments and issues with more passion than wisdom. Still, I think that the Government of President Megawati Soekarnoputri has done a good job of remaining rational in spite of the mind-boggling pressures that it has had to contend with.

For example, at a critical time when there is an obvious need for Indonesia to have a strong central government, it was decided that considerable powers be delegated to the local governments at district and provincial levels. By definition, such wholesale grant of local autonomy, effective in 2001, weakened the central government at a time when it needed every ounce of its strength to manage our immense diversity. Nevertheless, we made a strategic choice in the name of democratic transition and we are sticking to that choice.

Our fight against terrorism at the national level requires strong measures—strong enough to seize the initiative from the terrorists, but no so strong as to be seen as backsliding to the repressive system of the past.

In the same way, we have to walk a tightrope between the demands of nationalism and liberalization, between vigorous law enforcement and respect for human rights, between the elimination of inefficient subsidies and coming to the rescue of the impoverished consumers, between the need to reform the military establishment and the imperative of strengthening it so that it can defend our territorial integrity from separatist movements and contain various communal conflicts with dangerous religious overtones.

These contradictory pressures may be what democracy is all about, but this is a field in which Indonesia does not have much experience: we need a learning curve.

At the same time we have to stimulate the economy, attract foreign investors, reform corporate governance, revise the legal system, cleanse the bureaucracy and the judiciary of corruption and protect our environment with the little technology that we have at our disposal.

The point is that our friends should understand the complex process that we are going through, the constraints we are contending with, and the limits of our resources. To press for results without looking at the process is not only unfair—it is also counterproductive.

We do need the help of our friends, and in this regard we deeply appreciate the solicitude that Australia has been demonstrating to Indonesia. We also need and welcome a show of understanding and patience, just as we feel called upon to understand and exercise patience with friends who do not happen to be a mirror image of ourselves.

Above all, both sides need to acquire the habit of rationality that will enable us to see our way to a stable, long-term relationship. For ideally a bilateral relationship is not characterized by surges and plunges. It is not a manic-depressive affair. It is a steady growth, a comfortable process of learning more of one another—through exchange of visits, training programmes, people-to-people contacts, and by carrying out practicable undertakings that are likely to succeed and bring about worthwhile benefits.

And this should especially be the case between two next-door neighbours like Australia and Indonesia. We should strive for stability rather than spectacular success.

In this regard, we have time on our side: if we are neighbours by dictate of geography, then we are neighbours forever. There is no divorce between countries with common borders.

As two democracies, we cannot walk away from each other in a moment of spite.

The only rational choice is to engage each other in a stable, mutually beneficial and equitable, long-term relationship—to become true and dependable friends.