Talk of losses averted or gains to be made positions engagement with Indonesia as a means to an end.
The case for the benefits of greater engagement and the risks of complacency has been made often. But engagement should also be an end in itself. My life is enriched every day by being able to speak Bahasa Indonesia and by having spent time in Indonesia, a country of over 200 million people right on our doorstep. I gain access to the diverse perspectives expressed in the Indonesian media, books and films; I can also speak to Indonesians of all stripes, thereby better understanding the issues that interest, worry, unite and divide us.
By not deepening our engagement with Indonesia and other regional neighbours, we miss out on this richness. It's a bonus that closer people-to-people ties can lay the foundation for broader ties in other spheres too.
As for the steps we should take to improve ties, from an Australian perspective I would highlight three areas. The first is the value of in-country study, particularly the ACICIS program*, which produces our core cadre of Indonesia-savvy individuals. Increasing the number of Australians studying in Indonesia requires that we maintain funding for both ACICIS and language programs, but also convincing employers of the value of graduates with in-country experience and language skills.
The second is the need to broaden our engagement with Indonesia beyond Jakarta and Java.
Doing so would increase the 'spiderweb of ties' Steve Grenville describes, facilitate public diplomacy targeted to locally important issues, open business opportunities in second-tier cities like Medan (pictured), Balikpapan and Makassar, help Australian entities operate in provinces important for issues like climate change mitigation, and contribute to a more responsive travel advisory. Broadening regional ties will require government leadership, for instance by placing diplomats outside Jakarta or having them travel to the regions far more often. Expanding ACICIS to universities outside Java would be another good step.
The third area is pop culture. East Timor, the Bali bombings and other terrorist attacks are a part of our country's shared histories, and it's natural that they are reflected in pop culture (some examples of how Indonesia is represented in Australian pop culture).
But the great many people who move between our countries for work, holiday and study are also part of that shared history. When a young couple on 'Home and Away' face heartbreak as one of them takes up a job in Indonesia, or the Summer Bay locals are wowed by an Indonesian student/surfer, it will both reflect deepening engagement, while also perhaps encouraging more Australians to see engagement with Indonesia as 'normal'.
* The author undertook the ACICIS program in 1998.
Photo by Flickr user Batubara Ismail Rahmat.