Half of Indonesia’s population is under the age of 30 and its economy is projected to be twice that of Australia by mid-century. This is the generation which will shape the future of Australia’s relationship with its nearest neighbour. So why can’t Australia make it work?

By Alison Martin

When Tony Abbott declared the Coalition’s foreign policy would be “more Jakarta and less Geneva,” those of us with an interest in Indonesia/Australia relations were skeptical about how a party that has been so dedicated to politicising and catastrophising high profile aspects of the relationship could now be committed to strengthening it.

To the world, Indonesia is positioning itself as a vibrant, capable power, ready to take its legitimate place as a leading economic power. Yet the foreign policy of its nearest neighbour remains stuck in decades-old rhetoric that still fails to properly understand how to meaningfully and effectively engage.

Australia continues to characterise Indonesia through a colonialistic lens, evidenced by simplistic and unilateral rhetoric and policy on issues such as asylum seekers, the cattle trade and even aid.

This characterisation fails to recognise that Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest economy and in the coming years will wield considerably more political and economic clout globally than Australia.

Over two 5-year terms, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made great diplomatic strides in reaching out to key international partners and positioning Indonesia as a significant global player with a key role in securing regional stability.

If Abbott is serious about positioning Indonesia as a central anchor for Australia’s foreign policy in the region, he should begin by paying attention to how much Indonesia has changed – and how little it really needs Australia.

Australia can no longer expect Indonesia to play nice when we implicate it in our politically inconvenient issues such as asylum seekers, or when we unilaterally suspend a significant export without warning or consultation. Abbott seems to have learnt this lesson after Indonesia’s very public smack down of the Coalition’s policy on turning back asylum seeker boats – so chastened was the new government that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison soon denied the tow-back policy had ever existed.

Much has been made of the strength of the governmental and institutional ties between the two countries, yet a recent DFAT-commissioned report found that Australians were much more likely to name the United States, China and the United Kingdom than Indonesia as countries of importance to the national interest. Ongoing and damaging stereotypes remain, with more than half of respondents viewing Indonesia is “a threat to Australian national security.”

In his speech during his recent visit to Indonesia, Abbott himself acknowledged that Australia’s two way trade with New Zealand, with just four million people, exceeds current two way trade with Indonesia with its 250 million people.

In this context, it seems the purported robustness of high level government links between the two countries has either been overestimated or is irrelevant in engendering broader engagement and understanding. Clearly something isn’t working.

Abbott must ultimately recognise that Australia needs Indonesia – economically, politically, diplomatically – more than Indonesia needs Australia.

The PM would also do well to pay attention to Indonesian greatest asset: its youth.

Half of Indonesia’s population is under the age of 30. After 4 decades of authoritarian rule, this generation will have the momentous task of consolidating Indonesia’s young democracy – a considerable undertaking encompassing 250 million people sprawled across the world’s largest archipelagic state.

Much needs to be done in the area of education in both countries. Many more Indonesians are studying in Australia than vice-versa, creating an imbalance in the people-to-people exchange. Indonesia – and particularly its youth – has a greater depth and breadth of cross-cultural understanding and Australia is not particularly well poised to hook into Indonesia’s burgeoning economy.

In 2014 Indonesia will elect a new President in a test of the tension between the country’s authoritarian past and a burgeoning democracy: among the leading contenders for the election are aging ex-army generals accused of human rights violations. These remnants of former authoritarian rule will go up against the Governor of Jakarta Joko Widodo, whose style of “street democracy” is the antithesis of leaders of the past. Jokowi, as he is known, is popular with young people and widely seen as the front-runner without even being nominated yet (he still needs to beat the leader of his own party – former President Megawati Sukarnoputri). Young people will largely shape the coming elections, with over a third of the estimated 187 million eligible voters expected to be first-time voters between the ages of 16 and 20.

Indonesia is a country in flux between the old and new, still coming to terms with its young, unwieldy democracy. If Australia is to truly engage with Indonesia it must stop using the same old tired approaches, ditch the rhetoric, and fundamentally rethink its colonialistic framing of foreign policy.

Alison Martin has worked in development in Indonesia and was recently a delegate to the Causindy conference on the Indonesia/Australia relationship. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Rights Law and Policy from the University of NSW and a Journalism degree from the University of Technology. She is an advisor to a Greens MP but writes in a personal capacity.