President Joko Widodo receives a visit by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the State Palace in Central Jakarta on Oct. 20, 2019. (Beritasatu Photo/Heri Gagarin)

“Words matter”: Indonesia-Australia Relationship Paramount amid Pandemic

BY :SIENNA CURNOW

JANUARY 29, 2021

Jakarta. Communication remains at the heart of effective diplomacy. The inability for formal and informal diplomatic conversations to take place online has provided considerable challenges to international affairs. These relationships have been significantly tested amid the coronavirus pandemic sparking fears that diplomats have begun to view issues with Covid-centric tunnel vision.
 
Former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa shared his perspectives on Thursday in the Indonesia-Australia Campus-to-Campus Virtual Outreach webinar hosted by the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI), in cooperation with the Embassy of Australia in Jakarta.

Over 1,200 students were present from across Australian universities, Indonesian universities, and other educational organizations such as the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian studies. 

Within this youth outreach public lecture, Marty reflected on the choices governments faced at the onset of the pandemic: to prioritize public health, economics, or denial.
 
Marty described Covid-19 as being “so impactful, so all-encompassing, dominating all our lives”, that it presents the risks of global leaders disregarding other issues in its presence. The number of resources required to combat the pandemic has highlighted the overlap of this issue with the many other challenges within the global community. 
 
“We do not have the luxury of switching off every other issue and just dealing with one issue,” he said. “We have a number of different issues on our plate impacting each other and therefore diplomacy.”
 
Covid-19 was observed to have highlighted the connection between domestic and international domains in politics. Marty pointed to the fact that diplomats do not work in a “vacuum” of domestic concerns; a diplomat must be cognizant of the broader scope of international issues beyond one’s own biases.

Rather than viewing international exchanges as transactional, the problematic ‘me first’ approach is a detriment to the ongoing development of the global community.

It's been 71 years since Australia and Indonesia established formal diplomatic relations. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confidently shared in his first international visit to Jokowi in 2018 that Australia and Indonesia are “not just close neighbors – but great friends”. 

In their 2020 Joint Ministerial Meeting, the leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the 2006 Lombok Treaty, which outlines Indonesia and Australia’s respect for each other’s strong defense and security relationship as well as mutual sovereignty and territorial integrity.
 
Though President Jokowi has been criticized for turning his attention away from the bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia in recent months, the apparent presence of a continued friendship remains. In response to Indonesia’s 3.49 percent decrease in the gross domestic product in the third quarter of 2020, bringing the nation to its first economic recession since the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis, Scott issued a $1.5 billion loan to Indonesia.
 
Looking at the climate crisis, Marty asserted that it and the pandemic are directly correlated as both require global investment and public effort to resolve. Such efforts have been drastically transformed through the digitization of international affairs throughout the Covid-19 era.

Marty asserted that despite technological advancement, diplomacy is a centuries-old profession the essence of which remains unchanged.

Though new tools are developed which change the way diplomacy is conducted, breakthroughs in communications technology will not change diplomacy at its core, merely the modality in which it is carried out.
 
Though isolating and exceptionally difficult as it may be, Marty noted how even more challenging this crisis would have been without the facilitation of digital communication technology.

“We are wordsmiths,” Marty explained, “Words matter. In diplomacy, silence can also speak volumes.”
 
Where diplomats would have traditionally been stationed to a particular site to gather and dispatch information, this former design now appears arduous and expensive in an era where the same task can be completed faster and with fewer costs to the taxpayer. 

The potential for technology’s impact was described as more than a tool for public engagement but as a means of political mediation, conflict analysis, geographic information systems, data analysis, and more. One must not neglect the fact that diplomacy predates modern technology. New tools and technology continually improve the efficiency of diplomacy, though the essence of the profession remains unchanged. 

In the domain of public diplomacy and outreach, communications technology, as Marty contended, is a valuable addition to the diplomat’s toolkit. He warned, however, of the algorithms and political media bubbles which users now find themselves influenced by. 
 
“There is certainly greater connectivity, but the question is, are we more connected?” Marty asked.
 
Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia, Gary Quinlan, echoed these sentiments. Gary drew the students’ attention to the immense acceleration that the pandemic thrust upon the trends which were already disrupting the ways contemporary diplomacy was being carried out.

Namely, cyber-security altering domestic and international power balances, disinformation being politically weaponized, the misuse of social media, and the fastest-paced technological advancements in human history.
 
“The world was already, pre-Covid, going through the most disruptive era that we’ve been through not only in decades but for hundreds of years,” Gary said. 

“There’s a greater need for countries to stand up proactively and shape those developments and their immediate and global neighborhoods”.
 
As the global community divides and comes back together throughout the pandemic’s progression, diplomacy between Indo-Pacific neighbors will be crucial to economic and political recovery in a post-Covid world.
 

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