While official statements pronounced that Australia-Indonesia bilateral ties are back to normal following the summit meeting between Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono earlier this week, it remains far less clear how these statements will translate to action, and whether relations will stay trouble-free.
The summit, meant to discuss the Papua row and regional security, marked the first meeting between the two leaders since tensions broke out in February overAustralia's decision to grant temporary protection visas to 42 Papuan separatists. Jakarta withdrew its ambassador in protest and accused Canberra of undermining its sovereignty. While this was calming down, sharp reactions from Australia on the release of militant cleric Abu Bakar Bashir again irritated the Indonesians who felt that Australians were just too “overbearing”.
Official statements from the meeting had the two leaders agreeing to disagree on differences between their countries and undertaking to better respect each other's institutions. Howard said that although central problems remained unresolved, it was time to move on.
Yudhoyono responded to Howard's repeated appeals that Indonesia act against Bashir by telling his counterpart that while legal avenues had been exhausted againstBashir, Indonesia was prepared to act pre-emptively against terrorist threats, including close surveillance of any militants suspected of plotting further attacks. Yudhoyono faces massive domestic constraints and analysts say he cannot be seen to be taking action on terrorists at the behest of the West.
Blocked by a backbench revolt, Howard faced his own domestic battle, and had been unable to get his pledged new immigration legislation toughening border protection passed before the meeting.
While Indonesia provided generalised responses that they were doing everything to fight terrorism., Howard responded in kind regarding his right to keep insistingIndonesia act tough on Bashir. Similarly, he said Indonesia would have to accept Indonesia's decision on the 42 Papuans and that it was not a slight on Indonesian sovereignty.
Significantly, the summit showed that the need of both leaders to play to their national audiences can extract a heavy cost on their relationship. Howard and Yudhoyono were both under pressure of addressing, and were constrained by, their respective domestic political audiences.
On a more positive note, progress came in the form of an agreement to agree on the proposed new security pact covering comprehensive bilateral cooperation by the end of the year.
As is the case with their respective leaders, viewpoints in the two countries varied greatly. The Indonesian media’s coverage of the summit was brief and communicated only Howard’s compliance to Indonesia’s demands, namely Australia's reaffirmation of its recognition of Indonesia's sovereignty over Papua, Australia's rejection of being made a base for asylum seekers and assurance that Australia's aid assistance would not be used to finance separatist activities. Indonesia skirted the issue of Australia's pressure on it for a more robust stance towards Bashir.
The sentiment in Australia proved more cynical of the outcomes of the summit, with Howard having to brush off suggestions that Indonesia had largely ignored Australia's calls for tough sanctions against Bashir. Segments of the media and opposition leaders see Indonesia as having brought little to the summit negotiation table and are up in arms about Howard's perceived cave in to Indonesian demands despite it failing to make substantial commitments to Australia. In reference to what is seen as Howard's unfulfilled promise earlier to bring a strong message toIndonesia during the summit, opposition leader Kim Beazley said, "It seems to the Indonesians that John Howard is a man of strong views, weakly held."
It seems the fundamental issues of concern were glossed over rather than solved during this meeting. Neither side achieved much, barring the act of meeting itself. Though this, in light of recent tensions, is considered an achievement in itself.
Walk helps leaders break the ice (The Age, 26 June 2006)
Accidents will happen (The Age, 27 June 2006)
No action on Bashir, but goodwill returns (The Age, 27 June 2006)
PM denies Australia ignored over Bashir (The Age, 27 June 2006)
How low can friends go? (The Age, 28 June 2006)
Easing diplomatic relations proves a bit of a stroll for leaders (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 June 2006)
Talks 'direct and friendly': Howard (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 June 2006)
Howard and SBY patch up some differences (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 June 2006)
PM, SBY talk of respect for legal systems (ABC/AFP, 26 June 2006)