Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia’s foreign policy at Griffith Asia Institute.

Although the release this week of the Lowy Institute Policy Brief Indonesia and Australia: Time for a step change, provides welcome input into means of enhancing Australia’s bilateral relationship with Indonesia, there are political risks and policy complexities around several of the recommendations.

It highlights the negative mutual public perceptions in both countries as a serious impediment to closer relations and contends perceptions of Indonesia present the Australian government with ‘one of its most pressing foreign policy problems’.  Fifty-four per cent of Australians have minimal trust in Indonesia 'to act responsibly in the world’, according to the 2009 Lowy Poll.

The problem is how to address these negative perceptions. Hanson proposes a ‘dramatic leadership gesture’ to boost the relationship with Indonesia, in the spirit of Gough Whitlam’s diplomatic recognition of China.

The difficulty is whether such a move would push Australian policy too far ahead of what the Australian public would accept — replicating the mistake inherent in Paul Keating’s earlier embrace of Asia.

Government engagement with Indonesia that moves ahead of public opinion has repeatedly attracted domestic criticism in Australia. Admittedly, the human rights issues which were often the basis of domestic discontent with Australia’s Indonesia policy have largely dissipated, but there remain risks for any Australian political leader in undertaking ‘dramatic gestures’.

Perhaps what is needed instead is solid and incremental expansion in key areas, including closer economic relations and a new Colombo type education plan as Hanson suggested, which reach beyond the framework of current engagement which is predominately focussed on security concerns.

Australian travel advisories to Indonesia remain a fundamental impediment to closer ties with Indonesia, but Hanson’s suggestions that the warning system be modified to accommodate legitimate risk assessments while promoting safe travel, and that security warnings be made specific to regions of Indonesia are unrealistic given the nature of intelligence and the risk averse nature of governments generally.

There are enormous difficulties in determining legitimate risks from intelligence information, particularly for governments concerned about death and injury to Australian nationals overseas. Furthermore, region specific travel warnings would mean Indonesia’s capital, the heart of business and politics in Indonesia, would be on constant high alert.

The defence aspects of Hanson’s recommendation for developing an outward looking positive cooperation agenda are problematic. His suggestion that Australia consider a trilateral approach to training exercises with Indonesia’s Army Special Forces (Kopassus), including US special forces, fails to recognise Australia’s preference for bilateral defence engagement with Indonesia and a desire to avoid negative perceptions of Australia as US deputy sheriff.

Finally, the Lowy policy brief calls for a rethink of public diplomacy and suggests that both Australia and Indonesia agree to promoting ‘accurate, broader-based and positive images’. This is a worthy recommendation, but from an Indonesian perspective there are limits to improving public perceptions of Australia, when there is arguably greater benefit in redefining Indonesia’s global role through the G20 and in strategic partnerships with major powers, as well as Africa and the Middle East.