Those lucky enough to have worked with Ken Ward over his many years of government service will smile as they read his fine Lowy Paper on Australia's relations with Indonesia. It has just the same droll and occasionally mordant tone that characterised his work in DFAT and elsewhere, as well as his precise eye for detail and talent for exposition. It is no surprise, then, that Condemned to Crisis is one of the best things written for many years about the contemporary management of this relationship, and a model of plain and forthright exposition. I strongly recommend it.

Ken's central message is simple enough. He thinks that crises in the relationship are inevitable, but that governments can manage them better by understanding Indonesia's perceptions and sensitivities better and by not allowing the media or opposition to set the terms of discussion. Meanwhile, we should not be too ambitious about the relationship: it serves our interests well enough as it is, and we should not expect it to get much better or exaggerate how much it matters if it doesn't.

All of this is sound, sober and wise, based as it is on Ken's experience observing the relationship over several decades. As a guide to managing issues with Jakarta day-to-day, or even year-to year, it could hardly be bettered. Indeed if the routine management of the status quo was all that our foreign policy needed to do, there would be very little left to say. Ken has pinned it with a lepidopterist's precision.

But is that all our foreign policy needs to do?

Running relationships day-to-day on the basis of past experience will get us a long way, but it will not help us adapt to big changes when they happen – as they sometimes do. So we also have to look to the future and ask what big changes might be looming, and what we can do to manage them.

One gets the impression that Ken is a little impatient with speculation about the future. If so, this is something he shares with many Australian foreign-policy professionals. Indeed, one might say that the professional ethos of our foreign service today emphasises a briskly practical, no-nonsense approach to the management of today's immediate problems and issues. It tends to disparage reflection about the future and how our policy might prepare for it, and shape it to our advantage.

But if we do not speculate about the future – even the relatively distant future of two or three decades ahead – then we miss opportunities to adapt to it, and risk finding ourselves stuck with old policies that do not work anymore.

This risk looms large in relation to Indonesia, because the circumstances of the relationship are changing in two important ways.

The first is the big shift in economic relativities, a shift which has already occurred and seem likely to continue over coming decades, which makes it likely that Indonesia will end up with a much bigger economy than ours. Hence, in a very important way, Indonesia will be more powerful. Ken touches on this, but does not reflect on what it might mean for the relationship.

The second is the bigger shift in the regional order that is being driven by the wider shift in the distribution of wealth and power in Asia. This is important to Ken's theme because the Australia–Indonesia relationship does not exist in a vacuum. It is profoundly influenced by the wider regional environment in which both countries live.

It has been easy to overlook this, because the regional order has been so stable for so long — until recently. But if, as seems likely, Asia works rather differently over coming decades from the way it has worked over the period covered by Ken's analysis, then it seems likely that the Australia-Indonesia relationship will work differently too.

These thoughts might nudge us towards some conclusions a little different from Ken's. In particular it might lead us to ask whether the relationship with Indonesia will become more important to us in future than it has been in the past, presenting both bigger risks and bigger opportunities.

If so, then perhaps we should not be as content as Ken appears to be with a relationship which is somewhat better managed but not essentially different from the troubled one we know today. In turn, that suggests Australian policymakers should put higher priority on changing the basics of the relationship rather than just managing it.

Of course that is a rather ambitious objective, especially compared to the modest way we have conceived foreign policy in Australian recent years. But worth a try, surely?

Photo courtesy of DFAT.