Bravo! We might have expected that Paul Keating would go beyond the anodyne in talking about the Asian Century. But when the Asian dialogue is dominated by China, it takes special panache to repeat the radical view he put forward as Prime Minister in 1994: 'no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia'.
So much for the rhetoric: how might this be put into practice?
This is not an easy task. For a start, we know Indonesia can sometimes disappoint even its most ardent admirers. Being neighbours provides plenty of opportunities for friction. Many Australian journalists (and others) still carry Timor baggage, both from Balibo in 1975 and from the 1999 separation. West Papua has been an irritant in the past and bodes ill for the future. Each of these Australian frictions rubs raw for the Indonesian side as well.
But the onus for developing deeper relations is on us, not them. Indonesia is more important to us that we are to them, and this will become truer as their relative economic weight increases. It's hard to imagine an Indonesian president reciprocating Keating's 'no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia'. Their foreign affairs priority is within the region to their north (mainly ASEAN) and we have been slow to join these regional arrangements. Being 'independent and active' has long been at the heart of Indonesian foreign policy. The Indonesian media sees Australia as too ready to do the bidding of the US, and they find ready confirmation in our UN voting on Middle East issues.
Australian prime ministers have found President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to be serious, amiable and cooperative, even on sensitive issues. But he will be gone in 2014 without a successor in the same mould. So too will Australian-educated Vice President Boediono. The current list of contenders would be harder to work with (some with reputations far less bland than SBY’s), requiring more skill and understanding on our part.
Australian business generally finds Indonesia a tricky environment. Even with the travel advisory eased, business practices differ: what are considered to be normal business dealings in Indonesia may transgress newly enforced Australian corruption laws. Singapore, South Korea and Japan find it easier to do business in Jakarta.
Our economies are not particularly complementary (in the way China, Japan and South Korea are for us): Indonesia is, for example, our biggest rival in thermal coal exports. Indonesia has no need to look for resource security by investing in external supply (as China does). Mining, the area of foreign investment in Indonesia where we have most expertise, has consistently proved to be booby-trapped with nationalistic sentiment, overlapping layers of government and fickle bureaucracy.
This, then, is the challenge. Instead of thinking of the relationship in terms of the status quo management of transactional problems such as drug couriers and boat-people, we need to foster such a dense interaction between the two countries that when interests diverge or viewpoints differ, these issues are muffled and contained by a spiderweb of mutually beneficial linkages.
Much of this already occurs, through both governmental and private channels. Where are the additional opportunities? There will be a limit to how often Indonesian ministers wants to engage with our visiting politicians. Such meetings will need substance and real warmth if they are to succeed. Keating's own relationship with Soeharto provides an example. With Australia hosting the G20 in 2014 and SBY a keen participant, there is an opportunity to seek Indonesia's help in welding the diverse G20 membership together, especially across the cultural and historical divide between the G7 countries and the newer members of the international dialogue.
John Howard's initiative to link the federal bureaucracies with their Indonesian counterparts through staff swaps didn't work in all cases, but where it did work it was so successful that its subsequent fading away is lamentable.
There have been other lost opportunities to have senior Australian officials working in key Indonesian departments: some of our most experienced Indonesia hands are flying the American flag, working for USAID. AusAID, seemingly with more money than it knows how to administer, outsources funds to the World Bank and contracts foreign firms to run key programs. The purist will say that aid money must target poverty alleviation, not the relationship between our two countries. But no-one else thinks of their aid program in these one-dimensional terms. The aid money should be consciously used to get more Australians involved in Indonesia.
Economic complementarity is not static and can be fostered, as has been done in tertiary education and professional services. Our media could try harder: why does the boring predictability of China's leadership transition get more attention than the fascinating machinations of Indonesian politics? And the Indonesian press might be encouraged to do its bit too.
Regional security is the area of potential cooperation which has changed most since Keating's 1994 call. Indonesia, long seen as a potential threat, is now a potential ally.
We would be foolish to ignore the deep cultural differences that stand in the way of full understanding, but these can be bridged with awareness and sensitivity. Indonesians don't share all our values. Next time a minister wants to ban live cattle exports, a chorus of voices should suggest a better solution (such as to establish humane slaughter facilities). Jailing young sailors crewing for people smugglers doesn't seem a constructive solution.
Keating has given the rallying call. Let's hear the debate. In particular, let's hear specific suggestion that would put operational substance around this bold idea.