A worker at a port project in North Jakarta in January. Photo: Reuters.

A worker at a port project in North Jakarta in January. Photo: Reuters.

Australia needs to stop feeding Jakarta’s sense of self-importance, says ANU expert.

Last week media reported that Australia had established an infrastructure development forum with Indonesia. It follows the announcement of a joint conference on terrorism between the two countries.

To meet in Jakarta this November during a ministerial visit, the new forum may offer some of the bricks and mortar desperately needed to prop up the flagging foundations of Australia-Indonesia relations.

Nation building is one of President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s key priorities and he has plans to spend $US460 billion on new infrastructure during the next five years. His administration is calling on private investors to stump up at least one-third of the capital.

Besides the promise of lucrative contracts, infrastructure helps establish strong common ground for both countries to cooperate on outside of the troublesome terrain of cattle exports, asylum seekers, spying allegations and executions.

All have played a part in undermining the relationship over the past 12 to 18 months.

But before getting too excited about much needed renovations, it’s worth keeping the following in mind; this is yet another example of Australia doing a lot of heavy lifting for the sake of neighbourly ties.

It’s a worn out pattern which a leading ANU Indonesia expert says Australia should now try to avoid.

Speaking at the Australia 360 conference last Wednesday, Greg Fealy said that while it can be argued relations between the two countries have warmed, they would not return to the heights scaled under Jokowi’s predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

“Nor should they,” Fealy said. “There is a glaring imbalance in bilateral relations with Australian ministerial visits outnumbering Indonesia’s by about 10 to one.

“Our commitment of resources to bilateral relations also vastly outnumbers Indonesia’s. And this is not just about aid. There are a myriad of bilateral activities that only take place because Australia largely or solely funds them.”

Fealy was quick to point out that this did not mean Australia shouldn’t work hard in its relations with Indonesia; particularly since the reality was that “we need Indonesia more than they need us”.

But he did think it was time Australia stopped making Indonesia it’s most important relationship; a point shared by Endy Bayuni and Sambam Siagian in a recent Jakarta Post op-ed. The authors argue that such thinking not only makes Indonesians uncomfortable, but that Australia doesn’t even rank in the top five or 10 countries of importance for Jakarta.

For Australia’s part, expert Ken Ward has argued Australia should lower its ambitions when it comes to Indonesia (for the opposite perspective see Ross Tapsell’s New Mandala review of Ward’s paper here).

In either case, Australia’s over-investment in the Indonesia relationship fuels a hubris and self-importance in Jakarta, noted Fealy.

But for Fealy, there’s another danger creeping into the frame; disengagement by both sides.

“Jokowi is not much interested in Australia,” said Fealy. “He sees it as a declining power which has little to teach Indonesia. He’s much more focussed on China,” said Fealy.

“Few in his cabinet are interested in Australia as well.

“The Abbott government is annoyed with Indonesia under Jokowi, but of course don’t say so openly. And Abbott and other Australian leaders continually miscalculate in their statements and policies on Indonesia.”

With all that in mind, it may be a little while before those fences are mended.

Watch a video interview on Australia’s key relations with Greg Fealy from the Australia 360 conference in the player below.

Hosted by the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australia 360 is the country’s first in-depth stocktake of international policy.