Eyeing the Indies: Canada-Indonesia relations, 1945-99

“Can you boil down your book to 7,500 words?” A question every author likes to hear.

When asked to do so for a textbook on Modern Canada, though, I tried. It summarizes the main points of my book Fire and the Full Moon: Canada and Indonesia in a Decolonizing World. And I had the chance to add back in some material that was cut from Fire and the Full Moon.

Here’s the opener; click through at the end to read the whole article (15 pp).

WHEN IN 1958 Theodore Newton became Canada’s second ambassador to Indonesia, his reaction summed up his new station’s peripheral place in Canadians foreign relations:

“Indonesia? The other side of the world! Visions of watery islands, brown hordes struggling to assert themselves, equatorial jungles, smoking volcanoes, gorillas and other bizarre forms of life flashed through my mind…. The die was cast, but my ignorance of my future parish was colossal and what little knowledge I possessed of it was bookish and remote.”

Indonesia mattered: it was the fifth most populous country in the world, the largest Muslim-majority country, and a trailblazer of non-alignment. Yet as Newton noted, even the capital city of Jakarta was a ‘confusing South Seas metropolis,’ pioneer territory for Canadian diplomats.

Canadian involvement with Indonesia began when Canada’s Security Council mission played a significant role in the UN-brokered peace settlement that saw the Netherlands accept the independence of its Indonesian colonies in 1949. The two countries exchanged embassies in 1953 and Canadian development aid commenced in the 1950s. Cordial if low-key relations continued until 1963, when the remaining British colonies in the region joined the Federation of Malaya to form a new independent Malaysia. This angered President Sukarno, who embarked on a ‘confrontation’ with the new Commonwealth member state.  The Canadian government lent strong support, even including some military aid, to Malaysia, and suspended aid to Indonesia. It welcomed the military coup that toppled Sukarno in 1965-66 and began to seek closer trade and aid ties with the authoritarian ‘New Order’ regime headed by General Suharto. Ottawa made Indonesia a ‘country of concentration’ for development aid in 1970; Indonesia rose as high as second among bilateral aid recipients in the years that followed. Canadian governments increasingly cultivated closer economic relations. Human rights, by contrast, were not a major factor. Only after the fall of Suharto in 1998 did any Canadian government press very hard on rights issues, giving support to the 1999 decolonization of East Timor. Human rights were again been subordinated to economic interests in Canadian policy towards the democratizing governments of Indonesia in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

For most of this period, Indonesia was important globally, but peripheral to Canadian policymakers’ perceptions of their country’s national interest. Their mental maps, their ways of picturing the world, placed the North Atlantic at the centre of the zone of ‘civilization,’ as Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent called it, with most of the world as periphery. This was the natural result of their upbringing in a Canada that was very much part of the British Empire. Lester Pearson considered that Canada could be most effective as ‘honest broker’ in areas on the periphery of cold war clashes. Examining a relationship peripheral to the imagined interests of Canadian governments permits a clearer look at the themes of Canadian foreign policy. The idea that Canada played the role of an idealistic ‘middle power’ has been debunked thoroughly by historians who have identified the importance of alliance politics. If there was indeed a strain of idealistic mediation running through Canadian foreign policy, it might be expected to be more visible in areas at the edge of the cold war, as Pearson suggested. In Indonesia – a land almost impossibly distant to many in Ottawa – it was not. Part of the reason was that Asia and the rest of the less developed world were seen as peripheral. Racialized perceptions underpinned and reinforced mental maps.

Many Canadians have spelled out their own diplomatic self-image of Canada as benevolent peacemaker and humanitarian internationalist power with respect to relations with the global South. In a 1960 Dominion Day speech delivered on Radio Indonesia, Newton offered as clear a statement of the Canadian sense of mission as any: ‘Canada is then more and more taking a world role in the interests of peace, in the development and the protection of the under-privileged, and in the fight against hunger, poverty and injustice… We aim to be considered honest brokers in world affairs. We wish to help the less developed and the less fortunate nations of the world toward a fuller life.’  A case study of Canadian policy towards Indonesia, however, shows that policymakers made decisions about Indonesia in ways that would serve the interests of Canada’s alliances and multilateral associations – the Commonwealth and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization above all. Over time, it increasingly meant serving the interests of Canadian capital by promoting trade and investment.

Eyeing the Indies full text.

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