The looming execution of the Bali Nine duo risks fracturing relations between Australia and Indonesia

President of Indonesia Joko Widodo and Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott during a plenary session at the G-20 in Brisbane. Photo: Rob Griffith – Pool/ Getty.

The Australian government has signalled an “appropriate and proportional” diplomatic retaliation if the executions of Bali Nine duo Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran go ahead as planned.

As the federal government explores various avenues to dissuade Indonesian authorities from carrying out the sentences, relations between Australia and its neighbour – the world’s largest Muslim nation – are under increasing strain.

It was revealed today Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had a “very tense” phone conversation with her Indonesian counterpart about a potential prisoner swap. Bishop proposed to repatriate three convicted Indonesian drug traffickers if the two Australians lives are spared.

The ABC reports that Indonesia did not accept the offer during the phone call. However, The Australian reports Bishop was waiting for the offer to be taken to president Joko Widodo.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s language and stance against the death penalty has intensified as the pair’s execution edges closer.

“We are seeking opportunities to explore every option that might be available to us – every avenue that might be available to save the lives of these two men,” Abbott said following a candlelight vigil on the steps of Parliament House this morning.

Abbott said he “put in a request” to speak with Widodo, and added that “the people of Indonesia need to know that this is important to us.”

The government has made at least 22 representations to Indonesian officials since January, according to the SBS, including numerous letters and phone calls from Abbott, Bishop and the Australian Federal Police.

An upcoming Australian trade mission to Indonesia has reportedly been postponed, with the potential for other meetings to be abandoned if the executions are carried out.

Al Jazeera journalist Step Vaessen reported that President Widodo said the planned executions would not take place this week, however, he showed no signs of backing down, saying “I think the decision was already taken by the court.”

Strained relations

Just yesterday, the PM said he was “revolted” by the prospect of the Australians executions, adding “millions of Australians… feel sick in their stomach” regarding the judgement.

He also said he felt the death penalty was “beneath” Indonesia.

In an effort to step up pressure to spare the lives of the two Australians, Prime Minister Tony Abbott last month reminded Indonesia of the aid provided in the wake of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir told reporters in Indonesia that while he understood the connection Abbott was trying to make, “Threats are not part of diplomatic language from what I know, and no one responds well to threats.”

Abbott warned he would feel “grievously let down” if his pleas for clemency were rejected.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has supported the PMs appeal, saying there are valid grounds for clemency in the case of the Bali Nine ringleaders.

“The grounds are that both men have shown immense remorse for their grave crimes and… have undergone an extraordinary rehabilitation,” she said.

Police barricade outside Kerobokan prison in Bali, Indonesia. Photo: Getty Images

Indonesia acknowledged its decision to go ahead with the executions may create tensions between the neighbouring nation’s governments.

During a recent cabinet meeting in Jakarta, President Joko Widodo told Attorney-General HM Prasetyo to work closely with the foreign ministry in treating the Australian government’s concerns about Indonesia’s death penalty with seriousness.

“We realise it creates a kind of tension between Indonesia and Australia,” cabinet secretary Andi Widjajanto said. “We had the same tension before with The Netherlands’ government… so we take the concerns from our friendly neighbours seriously.”

Consequences of action

The Australian reported that the Abbott government has commissioned a team to investigate the different avenues Australia may explore if Indonesia executes the duo.

Some of the possible consequences may include withdrawing the Australian ambassador to Indonesia; suspending official visits; limiting or cutting off aid; or the cessation of cooperation between the two countries.

Brazil and the Netherlands withdrew their ambassadors from Indonesia in January after two of their citizens were among six people executed for drugs offences.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she would not rule out withdrawing Australia’s ambassador from Jakarta if the Bali Nine executions went ahead.

“I won’t… speculate as to what would happen should the Indonesian government carry through its threat to execute Australians. What we will continue to do at this point is make representations where we can, how we can,” she told Sky News.

Re-framing the relationship

With Indonesia’s development as a nation, many argue that Australia needs to re-frame its relationship with its biggest neighbour. However, the impending executions may stamp out any short-term hopes of enhancing multinational ties.

Alexander Downer told the Indonesian Foreign Minister in September 2013 that boats registered in his country were breaching Australia’s sovereignty when they arrive with asylum seekers, and that Indonesia should drop the “pious rhetoric”.

Indonesia expressed its disappointment with the Australian government’s policy towards people smugglers and the arrival of asylum seekers, who often use West Java as a departure point for the dangerous trip.

The Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders includes provisions for the Navy to tow people smuggling boats out of Australian waters “when safe to do so”. Indonesia said this impeaches on its sovereignty and warned it could jeopardise trust and cooperation between the two countries.

In November 2013, the Indonesian government downgraded the status of its relationship with Australia following revelations that senior government officials including the former President were targets of Australian surveillance programs in 2009. Despite the threat, Abbott refused to apologise, saying all countries spied.

Full diplomatic relations were restored last May but Australia and Indonesia have an extensive history of diplomatic tension, which has often complicated strategic cooperation with regards to international matters such as people-smuggling.

Indonesia is also a significant economic partner for Australia. Two-way trade in goods and services reached $14.9 billion in the 2013 calendar year, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, making Indonesia Australia’s 12th largest trading partner and 11th largest export market.

Australian investment in Indonesia was worth an estimated $10.9 billion in 2013. Austrade estimates that there are more than 400 Australian companies operating in Indonesia, in sectors including mining, health care, construction, agriculture, finance, infrastructure, food and beverage and transport.

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