Despite the apparent differences, Australia and Indonesia are seeking to form stronger ties.
As part of efforts to build an even closer connection, leaders from a wide spectrum of both nations — together with political, business, religious, academic and civil society representatives — met in Sydney, Australia, in late February for a three-day summit.
Key topics discussed were the environment, democracy, economic development and investment. The need to deal with how the two nations are perceived by each other was also a focus.
While the two-sided relationship has endured periods of strain, the individual governments currently enjoy good contacts.
In 2008, government ministers from Australia and Indonesia made 32 visits to each other between them, according to Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith.
Indonesia, the largest receiver of Australian aid, has committed $643,940 toward rebuilding in the wake of the destructive Victorian bushfires and also sent a forensics team to help identify victims.
The two countries also signed a comprehensive partnership agreement in 2005, committing to cooperation in economic, technical and security areas.
Furthermore, there are moves to liberalize trade between Australia and Indonesia as an addition to the recent free trade agreement between the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), of which Indonesia is a member, and Australia and New Zealand.
Although areas of debate remain — including Canberra’s refusal to reduce its travel warning to Indonesia — there are concerns that these good relationships at official levels are not being mirrored in relations between the two countries.
“We have a way to go in countering some negative perceptions of the relationship that persist in both Australian and Indonesia,” Smith said in an address to the summit on Feb. 20.
Smith’s counterpart Hassan Wirajuda, head of the group of 70 Indonesian delegates who attended, said that even though the Australia-Indonesia relationship had never been better, more needs to be done at the people-to-people level.
“The efforts to enhance the joint relations between our two countries and peoples are not the business of the two governments alone we need the participation of our people,” the Indonesian foreign minister said.
“Australia needs to do better, a lot better, in our level of Indonesian language study, in development of Indonesian studies within our universities and in our schools and our understanding of the enormous complexity that is Indonesian Islam,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said at a dinner held as part of the bilateral summit.
Australia’s drive to create a better understanding of Indonesia appears to be part of a process through which it wishes to take on with Asia as the region becomes more prominent. The Prime Minister wants to make Australia “the most Asia-literate country in the West.”
Associate professor Damien Kingsbury from Deakin University’s school of international and political studies said that while there is a high level of unawareness in Australia about Indonesia, the same can also be said of the knowledge of Australia across Indonesia’s 6,000 inhabited islands.
“It’s not so much that the two countries are willfully ignorant of each other. I think it’s just the nature of the types of countries they are,” he said.
Kingsbury said that the differences have less to do with religion — Australia has a predominantly Christian heritage while Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation than with their individual levels and courses of development.
He said that while Australia is a small, modern and cohesive nation, Indonesia is “almost a polar opposite to Australia in that sense”.
Budy Resosudarmo, an Indonesian national based at the research school of Pacific and Asian studies at the Australian National University, said that he has witnessed the effects of the enlarged number of Indonesians who have studied here.
He said he has prearranged conferences for social scientists since 1998. A decade ago, most speakers at the conferences had studied in either the United States or Japan, with very few having studied in Australia.
But at last year’s conference “almost 50 percent of the presenters had an Australian educational background,” said Resosudarmo, adding that a similar shift can be noticed among Indonesian television presenters.
“At least from the Indonesian side, I’m quite sure that there will be more and more of an ability to understand Australia,” he said.
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