Rawdon Dalrymple is a former Australian ambassador to Israel, Indonesia, the US and Japan.
Surprisingly, Stephen Grenville's blog post, Keating on Indonesia, has not stirred up comment. Grenville, who has 40 years of involvement with Indonesia and this country's engagement with it, applauded Paul Keating's pronouncement first made in 1994 and recently repeated : 'No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia'. Grenville then asked how that 'rhetoric' might be put into practice.
Perhaps the first job would be to convince more Australians that Indonesia really is as important for us as, say, China or the US. The answer, or much of it, could be constructed from the Asian Century White Paper.
Indonesia already has 237 million people and its economy is growing nearly four times as fast as ours. It is likely to be a powerhouse in 20 years time, able to afford modern defence forces and carrying a lot of international weight. It lies across Australia's trade routes and will always be the dominant member of ASEAN.
Grenville's thrust is that we have to realise this relationship is not, and will be even less so, a reciprocal one between equals. Indonesia's importance to us is greater than ours to them. The inference is that we have to make the greater effort. That's not a new idea for relevant parts of the Australian government and business community. But it is one that needs to be restated and reinforced at a time when its application here has diminished almost to vanishing point, for example in the case of Indonesian language studies in our schools and most of our universities.
Only a tiny part of the Australian community knows anything substantial about Indonesia. Perhaps there are more present and former dedicated Australian surfers who have a fair knowledge of Indonesia (where they travel far and wide) than politicians. Things like that won't change soon.It's hard to think of two neighbours who are as different from each other, and as the influence of strict Islam in Indonesia increases we may become more different than ever.
Grenville points succinctly to things that need doing to help bridge the gap and bring about more shared knowledge and mutual interests. He recognises 'the deep cultural differences that stand in the way of full understanding' but asserts that 'these can be bridged with awareness and sensitivity'. His own engagement with Indonesia shows this is true, at least on the individual level. And there are other academic, public service and military people who do too. But whether it can be achieved at a community level is another matter.
In the past five years the ANZ Bank has shown that in at least some fields major Australian businesses can grow strongly in Indonesia with the right leadership and commitment. A realistic target might be to develop enough people of influence in Australia who have had formative exposure to Indonesia and who will be supported by enough people who understand its importance to us.
Long experience of the relationship can also produce scepticism. Another eminent Australian economist with such experience of Asia and Indonesia particularly, Dr Peter McCawley, formerly Dean of the Asian Development Bank Institute in Tokyo and now working on economic policy issues in Jakarta, points to our long record of attempts to foster closer relations: 'A lot things have been tried over the years. Very little seems to stick.' It will take more patience and sustained national effort and determination than we have shown so far.
Photo by Flickr user Siim Teller.