Indonesia's likes? Not its isolationist neighbor

Despite their close ties, Indonesia prefers to court Saudi Arabia, not Australia
Published : 20 June 2017

By: Duncan Graham

On the surface the foundations for friendship are standouts: Australia backed Indonesia in its struggle against the return of colonialists in the last century, and not just through words. Waterside workers blockaded ships supplying the Dutch with arms.

When natural disasters hit, the neighbors move fast and dig deep; relief following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami exceeded A$1 billion.

More than a million Australians visit Bali each year. Every sun and fun seeker spends on average well above US$1,000 according to Indonesian research.

This year A$323 million goes to aid projects across the archipelago. Indonesians are hungry for Australian meat and grains, and thirsty for milk; producers are keen to trade and want to send more. 

Political bonds have bounced back, according to Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.  She reckons relationships are “in very good shape,” having been pummeled senseless in 2015.

In that year ambassadors on both sides were yanked home after Indonesia forced convicted drug couriers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran before a firing squad.

All regrettable – but all past, says Australia. Time to move on. Spin is a bureaucrat’s art form, but a release of fresh data should sink Canberra’s buoyancy.

Despite all the goodwill, Indonesians reject their neighbor’s hand. Instead they prefer a feudality 8,000 kilometers distant with a reputation for brutality that’s so bad Jakarta bans citizens working there as maids and laborers.

New research asked: which country has the closest relationship with President Joko Widodo’s government? Indonesian respondents chose Saudi Arabia (47 per cent), followed by China (38 per cent), and the US at six per cent.

Finding Australia in these ranks is like a Where’s Wally? children’s puzzle book: just 2 per cent.

The figures come from the Asian Research Network’s “Survey on America’s role in the Indo-Pacific” published by the US Study Centre at Sydney University and the Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia.

The authors dub it “the first major, multi-country survey of public opinion since the 2016 US election … the product of a network of think tanks in the Indo-Pacific - Australia, China, Japan, India, South Korea and Indonesia”.

The survey was run in early March 2017.  It explores “the public perception of free trade, foreign investment, national security concerns, the likelihood of conflict, isolationism, military presence, immigration, the influence of US President Donald Trump and US and China relations”. 

Between 750 and 908 interviews were run in each country, most self-administered through the Internet, although those in India and Indonesia were in-person. A similar survey last year – minus India – provides a handy baseline. The absence of Malaysia and Singapore is a curious omission as both are major players in the region.

The results show that the popularity of American values has shrunk. With a new administration in Washington, more than half of Australians questioned see American influence negatively, although not to the point where they fear the US won’t ride to the rescue should invaders hit the vast plains of the Great South Land.

Who could those baddies be? Although Australians and Indonesians reckon the chances of a war between them are low, with a clash involving titans China and the US more likely, results are “highly asymmetric”. Six per cent of Australians but 17 per cent of Indonesians say “conflict between their nations is very or extremely likely”.

Isolationism runs deep in Australia; almost half reckon closing the curtains is the right response to spats afar. Meanwhile across the Arafura Sea nationalism surges, as it does in India.

Consistency is not a strength of attitudinal surveys and this one holds to the tradition. When asked: “Which country is the most hostile towards Indonesia?” Indonesians nominated Malaysia (41 per cent), then  Australia (22 per cent) and the US (13 per cent).

Yet elsewhere in the report Malaysia is considered the second friendliest nation after Saudi Arabia. The Southeast Asian federal monarchy is mainly Muslim, so it seems faith drives feeling.

Indonesian section author Dr. Dino Patti Djalal, founder of the “Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia”, is a former Indonesian Ambassador to the US. He commented that support for Saudi Arabia is “not surprising since Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, many of whom go to Mecca each year”.

The first part of the last sentence helps explain, but not the second. Earlier this year King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s visited Indonesia; he was the first Saudi sovereign in almost 50 years to drop by the nation with the highest number of Muslims,

After talks, President Joko Widodo revealed he’d won a new haj quota of 221,000 a year.  That’s 0.08 per cent of the population - hardly “many”.

What other factors are in play? They’re unlikely to be financial. After the octogenarian ruler and his 1,500-strong entourage had farewelled the cheering crowds, Indonesians discovered that adding pomp and splendor to a shared religion doesn’t equal cash.

Once out of waving distance the Saudis announced they would invest US$65 billion in China, almost 10 times the Rp89 trillion (US$6.71 billion) sum pledged to Indonesia. President Joko said he was  “disappointed” and drily noted that he’d even held an umbrella to keep Indonesian rain off the old man’s thawb.

This snub could be a pragmatic view that putting the theocracy’s oil money in a godless socialist one-party nation will be safer and yield more. It could also mean that the Saudis have a poor opinion of a democratic Indonesia which is not an Islamic state. They also know risking money in the republic can be hazardous.

On the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index Indonesia ranks 91; New Zealand and Singapore head the list. The same two nations also lead in clean administration measured by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Indonesia comes in at number 90.

Research into the opinions of Saudis towards Indonesia could reveal whether the warmth is reciprocated, and if not, why? At the same time Australians might ask: Why don’t our neighbors like us?

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