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‘Soft power’ diplomacy can boost relations during Covid-19

By Ross B. Taylor

Relationships between Australia and our regional neighbours have been severely tested as a result of Covid-19, including with Indonesia where the pandemic is devastating many provinces of this huge archipelago. Regular meetings of ministers and senior officials have stopped and Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia has been based in Canberra for the past three months.

People-to-people relations have also been impacted with the usual 23,000 Australians who holiday in Bali at any one time throughout the year, now absent from their favourite island and their close friends.

It is during these times however, the use of what we call ‘soft power’ diplomacy can be used to not only maintain the connections but also build capacity that will enhance this critically important relationship in the future.

Despite the very poor understanding of Indonesia by Australians – The Lowy Institute survey found only 39% of Australians knew Indonesia is a democracy – much has already been achieved in the longer-term goal of us understanding Asia, including Indonesia, better.

Under the leadership of our former foreign minister Julie Bishop the ‘New Colombo Plan’ was created in 2013 with the goal of increasing the understanding and knowledge of Asia by Australian students. Indonesia was included in the plan with many students living and studying in-country through the Australian Consortium for In-Country Studies, or ACICIS, that was founded by Perth-based Professor David Hill in1994. With many Indonesians choosing to study in Australia, it made good sense for Australian students to get-to-know Indonesia first-hand whilst also learning the language.

Australia has other opportunities to build soft diplomacy, including the BRIDGE program, involving students and teachers, the Young Muslim Exchange Program, and also the Senior Editors Program – an initiative of the Indonesia Government – that allows senior editors from our major newspapers exclusive access to political and academic leaders in Indonesia where they can obtain a better understanding of this complicated, diverse and large nation to our north.

Australians are generally welcomed, if not well understood, by Indonesians but many older Indonesians still remember that immediately after World War II, Australia staunchly supported the Indonesian nationalists and opposed the return of Dutch rule. This lead to Indonesia’s Independence in August 1945.

Opportunities to build on these established links can also be found through sport. The AFL has introduced Aussie football throughout Indonesia, but meanwhile in this soccer-crazy country, with 52 million people watching matches on TV every week, crowds of 70,000 to watch a local derby match are common. So great is the fixation with soccer, one senior official once said, “If you control football in Indonesia, you are half-way to controlling all of Indonesia”.

Australia doesn’t want to ‘control’ Indonesia, but we now have our own soccer brand, and stars including Sam Kerr, who could be promoted throughout Indonesia to achieve greater recognition of women’s rights, for example.

Here in Australia we have a number of soccer players, including Perth’s own Robbie Gaspar, who have massive followings in Indonesia, having played in the national league, all with links into business opportunities as this nation of 270 million people moves towards joining the G7 within the next 20 years.

Australia talks about the ‘importance of understanding Asia’, yet we have very few company directors who have an Asian background, or who have actually lived there. Students who graduate from universities in Australia are seldomly valued because they can speak an Asian language and who have an intimate understanding of the people in our region. In time, this will have to change if we are to optimise our trade and business opportunities.

So rather than putting our regional strategic objectives on-hold because of Covid-19, now is the time to use soft diplomacy as a very effective way to not only maintain these relationships, but to prepare ourselves to access the huge opportunities that awaits our small, yet very advanced, clever and sophisticated nation situated on Asia’s doorstep

(This article first appeared in The West Australian Newspaper as an Opinion piece on Tuesday 29th September 2020)

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