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Reviewed by:
  • Condemned to Crisis? by Ken Ward
  • Evan A. Laksmana (bio)
Condemned to Crisis? By Ken Ward. Sydney: Penguin Books and Lowy Institute for International Policy, 2015. Hardcover: 152pp.

Condemned to Crisis? could not have come at a better time. While Indonesia–Australia bilateral relations have often been subject to ups and downs, the roller coaster ride seems to have grown more erratic in recent years. Indeed, lunging from crisis to crisis has seemingly become “the new normal” in how Jakarta and Canberra deal with one another, even as Australian observers maintain that a warm relationship with Indonesia is invaluable.

Ken Ward, however, provides a sobering and lucidly written assessment of why this is mistaken. His message is clear: Australia needs to be “more realistic” about its bilateral relationship and should not adopt “wildly ambitious goals vis-à-vis Indonesia” (p. 24). Ward claims that describing Australia’s relationship with Indonesia as the “most important regional strategic relationship” (p. 47) neither enhances Canberra’s negotiating strength nor elicits appreciation from Indonesia. Instead, Ward calls on the Australian political elite to adopt a more measured approach, improve political communication and avoid using Indonesia as a domestic partisan political football.

The book examines how Indonesia’s history has shaped its foreign policy, how the Indonesia–Australia relationship has been entangled by the domestic politics of both countries, and the role of political communication and culture. Throughout, Ward provides thought-provoking analyses as he debunks a few prevailing myths in the bilateral relationship. He correctly debunks, for example, a long-held myth that bilateral relations are difficult due to cultural differences (pp. 56–61). He claims that such a view conflates a certain variant of Javanese culture with Indonesian culture as a whole, and that cultural accounts fail to offer a reliable guide on how Indonesian leaders may react in crisis situations with Australia.

Overall, the book is a refreshing and important addition to the ongoing debate over the management of this bilateral relationship. Written for the Australian public in mind, it has rightfully fostered numerous debates in the Australian media and elsewhere. However, rather than rehashing these debates, I will closely examine the book’s analyses of Indonesia, which underpin its policy recommendations. Here, unfortunately, it falls short of providing a thorough, balanced and nuanced understanding of Indonesia. At times, the analyses are [End Page 505] crowded out by cherry-picked quotes, contradictions and unnecessary innuendos.

Ward’s thesis — Canberra should avoid big dreams and focus on building a stable relationship “capable of weathering storms” — contradicts his own claim that past crises that engulfed the relationship only had a limited impact on investment and trade, educational exchanges or tourism (pp. 26–27). If the status quo is already capable of weathering bilateral storms, why aim for something better? This confusion may be due to an absence of a clear framework to assess the evolution in this bilateral relationship. Ward suggests that we compare Indonesia–Australia relations with Indonesia–Singapore and Indonesia–Malaysia relations (pp. 34–50), but he does not persuasively explain why those comparisons are pertinent. Singling out distance as a variable seems like an odd choice since Indonesia has eight neighbors — and a cursory citing of Stephen Walt’s Origins of Alliances to justify this focus on neighbourly threats is not a substitute for case selection analysis.

Furthermore, the lack of substantive evidence for some of his claims exacerbates such analytical concerns. He points out, for example, that Sukarno’s view of the world — that it is dominated by exploitative forces — has “endured in one form or another … [and] underlies the continuing suspicion of foreign investment and the striving for self-sufficiency” (pp. 31–32). But he offers no evidence to show whether and how it endures. Are we then to conclude that an “inferiority complex” underpins Jakarta’s “sensitivities” when dealing with Canberra? Ward also claims that Indonesia’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee (Komisi 1) “has adopted a highly nationalistic approach in every parliament since 1999” (p. 52). This ignores studies (see, for example, Iis Gindarsah, “Democracy and Foreign-Policy Making in Indonesia: A Case Study of the Iranian Nuclear Issue, 2007–08” in the December 2012 issue of...


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