overtures to bambang

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    Overtures to Bambang

    Paul Kelly ( The Australian )
    November 20, 2004

    THERE is a new dynamic in Australian-Indonesian relations with the Howard Government taking a risk and investing its political capital to achieve a remodelled treaty between the two nations.

    This initiative came from Alexander Downer and his office. Downer spoke to John Howard a few months ago, secured his support and went public with the idea immediately after the election. Downer's department is now working on a draft text to be raised with Indonesian officials next year.

    The risks are obvious. The Keating-Suharto security agreement of December 1995 was torn up by Jakarta as a result of the East Timor crisis. The treaty failed to provide any relevance or utility during that crisis. This has left a legacy of suspicion and bitterness in Jakarta. So Downer faces a double test - to show that bilateral relations are now ready for another treaty and to devise a better and enduring document. It is a big ask.

    The window of opportunity arises from the recent elections, with Howard's stronger mandate in Australia and the pivotal victory of Susilo "Bambang" Yudhoyono as Indonesia's President. Yudhoyono is Australia's dream candidate -- a professional military officer, he knows the West, knows Australia (where he has a son studying) and knows Downer from their co-operation after the 2002 Bali attack.

    At an Asia Society function in Melbourne last year, Yudhoyono, in response to a question from Australia's former ambassador to Indonesia Dick Woolcott, said the treaty concept should be reviewed. It was a crucial signal.

    Howard believes he can do business with Yudhoyono. His decision to go to Jakarta for the new President's inauguration was deft. Howard and Yudhoyono will have a further bilateral meeting during the APEC gathering in Chile. But Howard, ever cautious, says relations must not be benchmarked by the new treaty concept.

    But this is now inevitable. It became inevitable once Downer made the calculation to go public with his treaty initiative and say that Yudhoyono "may be interested". The Foreign Minister is running hard on this issue.

    His judgment to go public from the start was correct. The only way forward in both countries is an open debate. This underlines, in turn, the differences from the Keating-Suharto treaty, negotiated in secrecy, concluded when Indonesia was a military autocracy, not a democracy, and flawed by its lack of consensus in both nations.

    Downer is now doing exactly what the Howard Government has been criticised for not doing - taking a risk in the cause of engagement with Asia. Indonesia can hardly rebuff this initiative yet still complain that Australia is not being proactive enough in the region. But Howard and Downer will find their initiative becomes a test of their own will and judgment.

    For the moment they are being applauded by former critics. "This is a splendid opportunity for a fresh start," says Woolcott, who has urged a greater focus on Southeast Asia and welcomes Howard's new drive in the region. "I think prospects are quite good for a new security agreement in the near future."

    The Australian National University's professor of strategic studies Hugh White says: "This move is critical. It recognises that Indonesia is the central focus for Australia in the war on terrorism and it confirms that the strategic focus of Howard's policy is shifting away from Iraq and back to our region."

    Downer has firm ideas about the treaty he wants. The first aim is to bury the East Timor legacy and reassure Indonesia. The document would uphold the territorial integrity of both nations - a significant statement of Australia's support for Jakarta and its rejection of secessionist movements in several provinces, notable Aceh and West Papua. An Australian official says: "People might think this was actually our rejection of any Papuan independence, and they would be dead right."

    There will be security provisions but Downer has little taste for replicating the Keating-Suharto language about how to consult and co-operate "in the case of adverse challenges to either party". This is an outdated formula about external attack when the new strategic priority is counter-terrorism. Australia already has a memorandum of understanding with Indonesia on counter-terrorism, but a treaty would deepen this commitment.

    Australia's national interest lies in a stronger joint operational drive against Jemaah Islamiah and other terrorist groups in Indonesia. Any treaty that solidifies Australian-Indonesian trust to achieve this will be worthwhile. At the same time, Australia wants a broad treaty that strengthens joint action in a range of areas - just try people-smuggling (there is no guarantee against another Tampa).

    Speaking in Santiago yesterday, Downer said a "watershed moment" had been reached in relations. It was time to "really move forward" and to establish broader ties that went beyond economics or counter-terrorism. The message is unmistakable and Downer is buoyed by Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, who has endorsed work on the treaty. Indeed, it sounds like a rerun of the Gareth Evans "ballast" theory - that you put ballast into the relationship as a protection against the inevitable periodic crises.

    Talk about a new treaty reveals how far the situation has moved from the 1999 East Timor upheaval. At that time the feeling of betrayal in Jakarta about Australia's role in spearheading Timor's independence suggested a generational interlude before ties could recover. But this has changed quickly - due to the rise of Islamic terrorism, the Bali bombing, JI attacks in Indonesia and efforts to bring the terrorists to justice.

    Australia must be careful not to exaggerate Yudhoyono's power. He operates within a political system still ambivalent about admitting JI's existence. Indeed, the President told the Nine network's Sunday show last weekend that "if I got strong legal evidence that JI does exist, I will of course ban that organisation". Such equivocation reveals how far Indonesia must move to seriously combat Islamic terrorism.

    Indonesia's parliament as well as Government would have to approve any new treaty. That's an unpredictable hurdle but it has a plus - it means the treaty would have greater acceptance within Indonesia's political system.

    White says: "The 1995 Keating treaty was drafted in Australia and few Indonesians outside Suharto and his circle really understood what it meant. The result is that when the crisis came, there wasn't the commitment to the treaty that we would have liked and they threw it away."

    That's right, but the Keating-Suharto precedent remains. This was the first security agreement that Indonesia, a non-aligned nation, had negotiated with any other country. It remains as a symbol of aspiring political trust between the two nations.

    If Howard and Downer want their treaty, then they must be persuasive. And Howard must change his penchant for putting domestic politics ahead of the relationship (witness his repeated remarks about Australia being willing to act pre-emptively in the region). Even with Yudhoyono there is much work to be done - this treaty is yet to be won and that is Downer's very big gamble.


 
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