Take ties with Jakarta beyond symbolism

Since the time of Paul Keating, it has become something of a ritual of Australian politics: the new prime minister will make their first major visit to Jakarta.

A big part of this ritual has always been to point to the untapped economic potential of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia. For years, Australia’s two-way trade with Singapore or New Zealand, each with populations of between 5 and 6 million, has exceeded its trade with Indonesia, a nation of 280 million people with a middle class that numbers between 50 and 60 million.

When Tony Abbott came into office in 2013, he promised his foreign policy would be “more Jakarta and less Geneva”, only to see rows over Australian spying and a clumsy attempt to link foreign aid money to a death penalty case sour his pitch. But from the beginning it seemed Abbott’s slogan was as much about pushing back against global institutions as it was about building ties with our close neighbour.

For Jakarta, which sees itself as a key player in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the fulcrum of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, and is set to host the G20 leaders’ summit in Bali in November, the idea of turning away from multilateral bodies to pursue better ties with Canberra held limited appeal. So a new Australian government that has vowed to re-engage with South-East Asia and return to a global consensus on climate change action was always likely to get a warmer reception.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took leading figures from the Australian business community with him to Indonesia, as his predecessors have, but this time the delegation has visited against the backdrop of global supply chain issues, cost of living increases and food shortages, not to forget both countries’ efforts to manage relations with China.

The fact is that despite the regular post-election prime ministerial visits, and even the signing two years ago of the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, the trade and business relationship between the two nations remains unforgivably thin. Symbolism has stood in stead of a reality of Australian and Indonesian businesses actually trading and investing with one another.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Indonesian President Joko Widodo ride through the gardens of the presidential palace in Bogor.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

If Albanese can replace even some Chinese products in our stores with Indonesian-made ones, it would present Indonesian President Joko Widodo with a win-win proposition. Likewise, if Australian businesses would invest more in Indonesia’s rapid growth and development.

The bicycle ride the two leaders took around the presidential palace in Bogor – on bamboo bikes made by a village-based business in central Java – highlighted where Indonesia would like the relationship to go. As Debnath Guharoy, then president of the Australia-Indonesia Business Council, told The Age in 2017, “it is the investor and not the trader among us who will bring about real change in the bilateral relationship”.

Education is a key area, with Monash University having opened an international university in the country last year and its vice chancellor, Margaret Gardner, accompanying Albanese on the trip. The prime minister was keen to talk up the value of people-to-people contacts, which have compelled him to address long-standing Indonesian requests for a less onerous visa process at the Australian end.

Penny Wong in Makassar, Indonesia, on Tuesday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

But the bicycle ride contains another important message: if we want our relationship with Indonesia to flourish we have to stay the course with it. The Morrison government’s increasingly aggressive tone on China and its surprise AUKUS alliance announcement meant Canberra was racing ahead of the pace Jakarta was comfortable with, at a time when we need to make common cause with democracies in our region.

Albanese’s announcement that he will attend the G20 summit was another important shift in emphasis, as Joko has made it clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, have both been invited. Australia has opted to respect Indonesia’s long tradition of non-alignment in search of diplomatic solutions – an approach that has also been encouraged by India and Singapore – rather than making common cause with Western countries seeking Putin’s exclusion from the event. Bringing with him an Asian-born Foreign Minister in Penny Wong, and a Muslim cabinet minister in Ed Husic will also help Albanese send a message to this Muslim-majority country.

The challenge with the Indonesia relationship is, and has been for some decades, to move from the symbolism of visits and bamboo bicycles, to the reality of a strong relationship built on diplomatic, trade and cultural links. Such a relationship between the two stable democracies has been difficult to achieve but could benefit the entire region.

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