Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s visit to Indonesia is only a first step towards improving relations with one of Australia’s most important neighbours, says an ANU expert.
In Indonesia to meet with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Mr Rudd’s first overseas trip since regaining the Labor leadership is likely to include discussions on ways to reduce the number of irregular boat arrivals from Indonesia to Australia, as well as security issues.
If re-elected, the recycled Prime Minister has also vowed to lead a delegation of Australia’s top 100 businesses to Indonesia by the end of the year.
Indonesia expert Dr Ross Tapsell, from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, is sceptical Rudd’s visit alone will strengthen Australia’s relationship with Indonesia.
“Rudd will come back next week, I’m sure, and say that he and SBY are best friends,” Tapsell said.
“We’ve heard this from previous prime ministers.
“But it doesn’t always matter what happens at the highest level.”
What mattered was a lack of awareness among Australians in general about issues affecting Indonesia, Tapsell said.
“We often think that the issues which are of pressing importance to us are, or should be, of pressing importance to Indonesia,” he said.
“Frankly, that’s not the case.”
And while Rudd’s visit to Australia has gathered plenty of attention in the Australian media, it’s received comparatively little commentary in Indonesia.
Likewise, what to do about irregular boats from Indonesia is big news in Australia, but in Indonesia, the effect of forest fires in Sumatra on Malaysia and Singapore is a far bigger issue.
Contributing to a lack of awareness of Indonesian culture and society among Australians is the decline of Indonesian language studies in schools and tertiary institutions.
In 1996 there were 44,973 NSW public school students studying Indonesian, but only 6,029 in 2011.
Of those 6,029, a mere 87 studied Indonesian at year 12 level.
At a tertiary level, 17,000 Indonesian university students come to Australia each year to study, yet only 150 Australian university students travelled in the opposite direction.
It was time for young Australians to think beyond the concept of Indonesia as a cheap 'schoolies' holiday, Tapsell said.
“If we can get young Australians into Indonesia, other than when they go to Kuta for an end of school trip, that would fundamentally recalibrate the way that most Australians see Indonesia,” he said.
The Coalition’s “reverse Colombo Plan,” which aims to increase the number of Australian students studying at Asian universities, is a step in the right direction, Tapsell says.
It wasn’t just language that mattered.
“If we are going to learn about volcanoes in schools, why don’t we learn about Indonesian volcanoes? If we are going to study history, why can’t we do history subjects on our nearest neighbours?”
Most important, was a long term plan to better engage with Asian neighbours.
“What is the vision for a 10-year-plan?” Tapsell asks.
“Is Indonesia going to be our most important ally in this future Asian century that we have been talking about? How are we going to work with Indonesia on issues such as climate change?”
In the case of asylum seekers, the Coalition has stipulated greater Australian Federal Police presence on the Indonesian coastline, while telling Indonesia to simply “cooperate” with such plans.
Such an attitude won’t allow for good cooperation between the two countries, Tapsell said.
“What we should be seeing is more rational, visionary approaches to the way that we discuss and engage with Indonesia.”