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Indonesians Want Closer Ties with Australia; Aussies Wary

A billboard offering information about Islam is seen on a main road in west Sydney. The billboards, paid by an Islamic group called MyPeace, offer free information about Islam, a free copy of the Koran and other Islamic literature. (2011 File)

Indonesians have significantly warmed towards Australia and want a much closer bilateral relationship with Canberra, according to a new poll by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based research group. The study also indicates that many Australians are wary and fearful of their giant Muslim neighbor to the north.

Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is complex. The two countries are separated by the Timor Sea and have vastly different cultures. Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation, while modern Australia was founded as a British penal colony in the 18th century and retains strong European traditions.

The Lowy survey suggests the majority of Indonesians want much broader education, health and trade ties with Australia. According to the poll, Indonesians are increasingly warming to their relationship with their southern neighbor.

However, the study reveals an entrenched suspicion of Indonesia by Australians, fueled by Jakarta’s invasion of East Timor in the 1970s and by bombings which killed 202 people - including 88 Australians - on the holiday island, Bali, a decade ago. The attack was carried out by a radical Islamic group.

Michael Wesley, the executive director of the Lowy Institute, says misconceptions about Indonesia still persist in Australia.

“Indonesia is the closest Asian country to Australian and I think for a lot of people it plays into a lot of very old Australian fears and prejudices about Asia; a crowded, impoverished country that is poised to come down and take over the riches of the Australian continent," he said. "There is a strong stereotype of Indonesia as a military dictatorship and therefore a military threat to Australia.”

The study says Indonesians are far more worried about China's rise than Australians are. More than half of Indonesians say it is likely the Chinese will become a military threat to Indonesia in the next 20 years. However, antipathy towards Australia still lingers in some quarters, with 15 percent of polled Indonesians expressing support for a boycott of Australian goods.

Wesley says there is still a small group of Indonesians that support terrorism.

“We asked Indonesians what they thought about, you know, was suicide bombing ever justified. While we got 88 percent saying no, it was never justified, there was still a small core of people, probably around eight percent that said it was justified in some circumstances," he stated. "So, look. we have to acknowledge that there is an extremist element in Indonesian society.”

The Lowy Institute surveyed the views of almost 1,300 Indonesians, toward the end of last year.

In Canberra, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has again warned Australians to reconsider travel to Indonesia following the deaths of five men suspected of planning robberies to fund terror attacks on Bali.