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Australia and Indonesia: are we there yet?

The people of these neighbouring nations know surprisingly little about each other.

My neighbour on the plane was an Indonesian, going home to Jakarta, after having spent many years living and working in Australia. "What takes you back?" I enquired. Like most Australians, I tend to assume that anyone from a developing country who gets the chance would prefer to live and work in Australia.

"Job opportunities," he replied. Jakarta was growing fast, and with the skills he had (he was in IT), he thought he could do much better there than in Sydney.

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Australia's future foreign policy

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have outlined Australia's changing priorities on the global stage, when releasing the foreign policy white paper.

He was no doubt right about that, although, when I got to Jakarta, I wondered how anyone could survive, let alone prosper, in a city with traffic congestion of mind-boggling dimensions and air pollution bad enough to make your eyes water.

It's difficult to get your head around Indonesia. Our two countries differ in almost every conceivable way: in history, religion, population, linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as overall economic development. We cannot ignore each other, yet common ground is difficult to delineate.

The Turnbull government's recent foreign policy white paper sees Indonesia through the lens of China's growing strategic power. Indonesia is billed as an Indo-Pacific democracy with which we will build closer economic and other relations, helping to secure greater balance in the region. Australia, we are reminded, favours open markets and the rule of law, and will continue to push for these good things regionally and internationally.

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Foreign policy statements play primarily to a domestic audience, so in a sense it doesn't matter whether the other countries in the drama agree with their Australian-assigned roles. In any case, the real action lies in bilateral relations, which will always be advancing and retreating, largely unheralded, on a range of fronts.

Even so, something seems not quite right. We used to spend a lot of time talking about Indonesia (only Papua New Guinea is closer), but unless something happens to upset or inconvenience us, our near neighbour excites little public interest. I expected to meet many Australians as I travelled around Java; to my surprise, I found almost none. All the Australians, I was told, were on Bali, and most never got beyond Kuta. Other tourists were European, predominantly Dutch. No doubt many had connections going back to the days (over 70 years ago now) when the Netherlands was the resident colonial power. I suspect the lack of interest is reciprocated: most Indonesians I met seemed to know little about Australia. Having established through friendly enquiry that I was Australian, if I said I was from Canberra, people looked a bit puzzled.

Should we be concerned? Australia is a more prosperous and certainly more populous country than it was, yet fewer year 12 students are studying Indonesian than 40 years ago. And that's absolute numbers. While students from Indonesia study in Australia, the numbers are not huge: about 14,000 at all levels, many funded through aid scholarships. Richer Indonesians seeking tertiary education tend to go to the United States.

I was looking forward to catching up with my contact in Jakarta, a former student, who is now a middle-ranking public servant. My friend picked me up the following day in a very smart SUV. It was late in the morning so we were able to make our way very slowly to see some of the city.

I complimented her on her car. She used to take the bus to work, she explained, but the service was unreliable and she found the experience of being squashed up with mostly male passengers unpleasant. She does not wear the hijab, which I suppose didn't help. Her daily commute from her suburban flat to the CBD and home again was about seven hours. "You could ride a motorbike," I suggested. For every SUV clogging the inadequate road system, there were at least two motorbikes, whose drivers (mostly male but some women, too) zapped in, out and around the traffic. "It's not safe," she said. I could see her point. Although the car drivers did not exactly follow the rules, the motorbike riders were even worse. Indeed, they were banned from some parts of the city.

It's not easy, living in a city of 10 million people, on an island of 140 million, in a country with 260 million. You must live and let live. Middle-class drivers may decry the army of motorbikes, but it's difficult to see how Jakartans could get around at all without them. There are several motorbike-based ride-sharing services, each with its own app. And when you want to drive out of a car park or side street into a main road clogged with traffic, a chap called (in Bahasa) a "Pak Ogah" will appear to help you out. The Pak Ogah walks into the middle of the traffic, holds up his hand, the cars stop and, as you exit, you push a small sum into his palm. Not everyone pays – there are always free riders – but enough to make it worthwhile.

I'm unsure we have the right mindset to deal with Indonesia's complex, contradictory society.

My friend had done quite well so far. I wondered, though, how she would fare in the future. It's definitely not easy being a woman and trying to pursue a career. Girls go to school but, particularly in Java's more traditional areas, are then expected to marry, have children and stay home to look after them. Indonesia's mostly moderate, but conservative, form of Islam is unhelpful for women's equality.

There is certainly a strong-arm element in the Indonesian character. But perhaps this is understandable. It's a wonder a nation of such astonishing diversity holds together at all. Perhaps because of a fear of breakaway movements, their sense of sovereignty is strong. When Indonesian fishing boats ferried asylum seekers to Christmas Island, the passengers all came from eslewhere. A decade ago, some unfortunate Papuans tried to escape to Australia. Their return was demanded, and they were quickly sent back.

I am unsure we have the right mindset for this complex, contradictory society. Beyond our immediate concerns, we seem too unambitious in some ways, too high-minded in others. There is much we can give. We could, for example, do more to support Indonesian female students, here and in Indonesia, following up and supporting their careers as much as possible. The rule of law and open markets are attractive concepts, but they don't always correspond with the reality on the ground.

Foreign direct investment into Indonesia is dominated by Singapore, China, Japan and the Netherlands. In trade, Australian companies have done well through live-cattle exports but have struggled to make much impact in other areas, such as infrastructure. Clearly, access depends on much more than just propinquity. Indonesia is unlikely to open its domestic market to more Australian imports unless there is some advantage to it in doing so. Unless we can come up with more creative ways of linking overall policy to economic and business interests, we will continue to miss out.

Professor Jenny Stewart is a visiting fellow in UNSW Canberra's school of business. j.stewart@adfa.edu.au

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