What’s to blame for poor Australia-Indonesia relations?

Welcome to 2016 and the perennial question: how can we get a warmer relationship with the people next door even if they’re tepid about us?

In 2013 ANU strategic studies Professor Hugh White wrote:

It will not be easy because in almost every dimension of national life – geography, history, economics, religion, language and culture – Australia is as different from Indonesia as two countries can be.

His comments could have been published yesterday; they’ve not been gainsaid, only highlighted by others to illuminate the contrasts.

Yet applying all White’s factors – and particularly history – distant Japan is the country we should most distrust and our northern neighbour the one we should like best. Curiously the reverse holds.

We fought a vicious war against the East Asian nation bent on conquest. Its fanatical military was as inhuman towards prisoners as ISIS extremists are today. The Japanese bombed our northern ports and came close to invading.

The generation that suffered hated the enemy and passed down its abhorrence. Loathing lapsed as Japanese technology triumphed; we found Toyotas efficient and – traitorous to confess – hardier than Holdens.

We got a taste for sushi and tempura but found the language difficult and culture opaque. They have a far-right military group glorifying its evil past, and which still finds ‘sorry’ the hardest word. They continue to slaughter sea mammals and ignore our outrage.

Yet this month one-time Australian ambassador to Japan John McCarthy told ABC Radio our friendship with Japan is ‘the closest relationship we have in Asia’. His former department says this is ‘underpinned by a shared commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.’

On his pre-Christmas trip to Tokyo Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull joined the chorus: ‘There has never been a better time to be investing in the friendship between Australia and Japan’.

Although Turnbull added that he was ‘very disappointed’ with Japan’s decision to resume whaling in Antarctic waters that didn’t stop him inviting PM Shinzo Abe to Australia this year. He was officially last in Canberra in 2014 when he addressed the Federal Parliament.

Turnbull also posed with ASIMO, labelled ‘the world’s most advanced humanoid robot’.

Contrast this enthusiasm with Turnbull’s earlier visit to Jakarta, promoted as a chance to reset the relationship following the execution of two Australian drug traffickers.

Unlike his predecessor Turnbull didn’t remind President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo of Australia’s aid after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

Instead he reached back seven decades, overlooking the point that the unions did much of the heavy lifting in helping decolonise the archipelago:

One of the shining moments, proudest moments (in) Australia’s contribution to global affairs was the diplomatic support provided in the immediate post war era for Indonesia’s struggle for independence and sovereignty.

If this heartstring pluck was supposed to inspire a tear and a hug, it didn’t work. Even after more than a year in the job the leader of the world’s third largest democracy still does banal well.

Jokowi replied: ‘The close proximity of our two countries is a fact.’

Turnbull did snap selfies but in a grossly overcrowded and basic market. If he did offer a visit the card wasn’t opened.

The prelude to Turnbull’s trip was a deputation of 344 businesspeople encouraged by the perpetual alerts that Indonesia is too big and important to ignore.

It’s by far the largest economy in Southeast Asia and expanding fast. The World Bank reports it’s ‘now one of Asia Pacific’s most vibrant democracies that has maintained political stability and emerged as a confident middle-income country.’

Australia relies on exports of primary produce, modern technology and efficient services. We’re the country next door but do little business with our giant neighbour. There used to be 400 Australian companies; now there’s 250.

By contrast Japan is Australia’s second-largest export market and fourth-largest source of foreign investment.

Turnbull’s rhetoric was later warmed up by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. As a prelude to a December meeting with her counterpart Retno Marsudi (plus defence ministers) she said: ‘Australia enjoys a constructive partnership with Indonesia, which is vital to our economic, strategic and security interests.’

All important, but no mention of friendship. Or culture, education, science, art, invention and innovation that accompanies talk about Japan – just the standard trinity of business suits, planners with portfolios and uniforms with guns.

Although the Lowy Institute’s poll on our feelings towards Indonesia show they’ve cascaded to the lowest point since 2005, (on a par with Russia and Egypt), we certainly like Japan, ranking the country just below Germany, the US, UK and New Zealand.

And they seem to like us; more than 350,000 Japanese visit Australia every year. The number from Indonesia is less than half, though paradoxically we send more than a million in the other direction.

Most head to Bali which even DFAT has trouble recognising as part of the Republic. Its travel warnings state: ‘We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Indonesia, including Bali’.

Do we find it easier to relate to the Japanese because they play rugby (introduced by former Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs player Max Mannix), drink grog, work hard, are smart innovators, don’t bother others with their religion and have rapidly adapted to Western ways and values?

In 1945 both nations started with huge handicaps. The Indonesians fought a guerrilla war for four years to expel the colonial Dutch and consolidate their independence.

Japan had been bombed with atomic weapons. Almost all its industry had been destroyed. The Allies’ occupation lasted for seven years. But by 1949 Japan had won its first Nobel Prize. It now has 24, mainly in physics. We have 13. Indonesia has none.

Japan joined the UN in 1956; instead of dwelling on its catastrophic and humiliating defeat the nation set out to rebuild and learn; it’s now the world’s third largest economy with a population one-third of Indonesia’s 250 million.

Till a year ago Indonesia was our major aid recipient and (Bishop again) a ‘trusted partner.’ If that’s the best we can say this commentary could be recycled a year hence.

If we can get close to the Japanese, why not the neighbours? They are overwhelmingly friendly and funny, their culture and country alluring. What’s the problem — Indonesia or us? Readers’ suggestions welcome.

Australian journalist and author Duncan Graham lives in East Java and writes for the Indonesian media.