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Asia

Poll: Australians cautious about damaging relations with Indonesia

Following the execution of two Australian drug convicts despite repeated pleas to Jakarta for clemency, a new poll reveals that Australians have a strong preference for a restrained diplomatic response from Canberra.

"Despite strong opposition to the death penalty for drug trafficking, it seems that Australians are cautious about taking strong actions against Indonesia in response to the executions of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan," commented Dr Michael Fullilove, Executive Director of the Lowy Institute, on the poll results released on Thursday, May 7.

After a decade in prison for their role in masterminding the so-called "Bali 9" plot to bring heroin to Australia from the Indonesian resort island of Bali, Chan, 31, and Sukumaran, 34, were killed by firing squad in the early morning hours of April 29. They were among seven foreign and one Indonesian drug convicts executed on that day after Jakarta rejected last-ditch pleas for clemency from around the world.

Despite the controversial punishment that sparked highly emotive debates around the world, most Australian adults (59 percent) say that private diplomatic protests are the course of action they would prefer their government to take following the incident, according to the nationally representative telephone survey commissioned by the Sydney-based think tank.

Calls for restraint

As a direct reaction to the executions, Canberra withdrew its ambassador to Jakarta - a step it had never taken with regard to Indonesia. But the poll also reveals that only a minority (42 percent) agreed with the move. Moreover, the predominant view is that normal diplomatic relations with Indonesia should be suspended for only a few months.

Indonesien Todesstrafe für zwei Australier

Drug convicts Chan and Sukumaran were killed by firing squad in the early morning hours of April 29

When presented with a range of possible time periods and asked "for how long should Australia suspend normal diplomatic relations with Indonesia," only a third of Australians (34 percent) advocated a period longer than four months.

There is also scant support for suspending Australian aid projects (28 percent agreeing) or suspending military and law enforcement cooperation (27 percent). The least supported action is for applying trade sanctions, with only 24 percent of those surveyed agreeing.

Further poll results suggest that the executions will have little impact on Australians' travel plans, buying habits or business dealings with Indonesia. When asked whether they would be more or less likely to "travel to Bali or anywhere else in Indonesia" or "buy Indonesian products," significant majorities of the population (63 percent and 71 percent respectively) said it would make no difference.

Nor do the majority of Australians (76 percent) think that Australian companies should be less willing to do business with Indonesia following these executions.

Almost three-quarters of Australians continue to oppose the death penalty for drug trafficking. Despite the strong opposition, however, attitudes to the idea that the Australian government should lead an international drive to abolish the death penalty worldwide are less clear cut.

A slight majority say Canberra should play an active role in pushing for the abolition of the death penalty internationally (51 percent, compared with 45 percent saying it should not).

No mercy

In the meantime, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has continued to defend his tough stance against convicted drug traffickers, saying they would not receive a presidential pardon since Indonesia is facing an "emergency" over drug use.

Yohanes Sulaiman, a political expert from the Indonesian Defense University, told DW he believes President Widodo, who was often viewed as weak compared to his presidential rival during last year's election, is trying to convey the image of being a decisive leader in a country where there seems to be public support for the death penalty.

Some 60 convicts are believed to be on death row in Indonesia for drug-related crimes. Around half of them are foreigners. Jakarta had an unofficial four-year moratorium on executions until 2013, and there were no executions in 2014.

Aaron Connelly, an Indonesia expert at the Lowy Institute, told DW that the executions have made President Widodo a manifestly unpopular figure in Australia and that it is difficult to tell how long that feeling will linger.

Nevertheless, he pointed out that while Australians are genuinely anguished at the executions of their compatriots and offended by the manner in which the process that led to their deaths was conducted, their leaders also understand the importance of the relationship for geopolitical and security reasons, and will hesitate before withdrawing cooperation that benefits both countries.

"At a lower level, it seems likely that police cooperation between Australia and Indonesia may suffer, because Australian police provided the intelligence that led to the arrests of the so-called Bali 9. Beyond those immediate steps, it is hard to say how Australia will react."

Crucial relationship

That said, the partnership with Jakarta remains important to Australia for reasons of security, and it is in Australian interests to ensure the relationship gets back on firmer footing in the medium to long term, Connelly added.

Australien Premierminister Tony Abbott 2014

'I am confident that we will be able to rebuild the relationship,' said Abbott

Despite the political irritants of the past two years, including the spat over reports that Australia may have spied on high-level Indonesian politicians, there is a great deal of ongoing intergovernmental cooperation in many areas of public administration, including police and customs, as Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific Chief Economist at the analytics firm IHS, told DW.

"In addition to police and military co-operation, Australia is one of Indonesia's key economic partners, with bilateral trade and investment reaching 15 billion AUD in 2013," said Biswas. "There is also an estimated cumulative investment of 11 billion AUD in Indonesia by Australian companies in mining, manufacturing and infrastructure projects."

Bilateral trade in services is also growing in importance, as Biswas pointed out. "Thousands of Indonesians study at Australian universities and institutes each year and there is also a large flow of Australian tourists to Indonesia," said the economist.

In fact, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently stated he was confident Australia could restore its relationship with Indonesia despite anger over the executions. "I am confident that we will be able to rebuild the relationship," Abbott told reporters in Sydney. "It's important to Australia, it's important to Indonesia and it's important to the wider world that Australia and Indonesia's friendship is strong and growing in the months and years ahead," the prime minister added.