Tuesday Dec 05, 2023

Indonesia relationship the truer test of Albanese’s diplomatic touch

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Prime Minister Anthony Albanese set off for Jakarta on Sunday seeking renewed relations with Indonesia, the near neighbour whose approach to foreign policy resists easy classifications and the centre of so many diplomatic ups and downs.

Mr Albanese’s travelling party and itinerary give some insight into how he will approach the task of reinvigorating the relationship.

“My government is determined to have better relations across the Indo-Pacific region,” he told reporters in Perth on Sunday morning.

“It is important that we recognise that Indonesia isn’t just Jakarta and Bali.

“It is a vast archipelago.”

President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) is from one of Indonesian’s smaller cities, Surakarta.

The former furniture salesman had lifted reformers’ hopes upon coming to office but experts say he has presided over a period of democratic decline. 

The Prime Minister will visit Makassar, a port city in Indonesia’s east not often a priority pitstop but where new infrastructure and a booming housing market represents Indonesia’s economic potential and a long-stated goal of spreading development across the archipelago.

Australia only recently signed a free trade agreement with Indonesia, but the government believes there is more to do on trade.

After his much-lauded first international trip as Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese faces a greater test in Indonesia.

As a proportion of its total trade flows Indonesia is much more oriented to its regional neighbours, in countries such as Thailand and Vietnam; government sources cite increasing exports from agriculture and manufacturing as areas with the greatest potential.

“They will grow to be the fourth-largest economy in the world in growing decades,” Mr Albanese said.

Apart from Foreign Minister Penny Wong, the Prime Minister is accompanied by the Minister for Science and Industry, Ed Husic.

The Indonesian press has focused on his inclusion in Mr Albanese’s cabinet as Australia’s first male Muslim cabinet Minister. 

Mr Husic’s inclusion and that of a delegation of business leaders and Trade Minister Don Farrell show economic relations will be high on the agenda.

One of Mr Albanese’s top priorities for economic reform in office is, he says, converting more of our scientific research into economic output.

Forging a shared approach on climate change, tourism, deepening  people relationships and closer co-operation on maritime security are the trip’s other top priorities.

Indonesia was always Mr Albanese’s first choice for his first trip overseas, until events intervened and sent him to Tokyo hours after being sworn in.

The Prime Minister had named engagement with South-East Asia and its regional grouping the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as his top foreign policy priority.

To that end, he pledged a boost in development assistance and the creation of a new envoy and office in DFAT focused on deepening ties with the region.

Australia’s attempts to secure a seat at ASEAN were famously thwarted throughout the 1990s with former (though latterly but comparatively briefly returned) Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad playing the role of chief antagonist.

Paul Keating said there was no more important relationship to Australia.

But more recently issues such as Timor-Leste, terrorism, travel warnings, tension over military exercises, revelations spooks had been tapping the President’s mobile and even Schapelle Corby have at various time made waters choppy.

After last month’s election, top Indonesian journalist and commentator Meidyatama Suryodiningrat noted with approval that Mr Albanese and Senator Wong had acknowledged Indonesia’s role as an emerging regional superpower.

He noted Senator Wong’s Malaysian background would be well regarded in the region and that Mr Albanese had reaffirmed a commitment to maintaining Indonesia’s territorial integrity.

But Meidyatama also foreshadowed one of the more loaded aspects of the relationship when noting the extent to which concerns about China and the Pacific dominated the election campaign.

He warned against prioritising strategic contest and making noise about China in a region that should be focused on prosperity and multilateral co-operation.

“Harsh rhetoric has often been employed when discussing China,” Meidyatama wrote.

Indonesia’s view of international security is much less binary and the phrase “free and active” used by its first vice president Mohammad Hatta are still used to describe its foreign policy outlook.

Some 55 per cent of Indonesians affirmed their trust in Australia last year, a drop of 20 percentage points over the past decade, according to opinion polling by the Lowy Institute foreign policy think tank. 

That places Australia on roughly level pegging with the US and above China (42 per cent); foreign investment is one area on which Indonesians regard China with comparatively little trust, the poll showed.

But an overwhelming majority of Indonesians (84 per cent) said their country should remain neutral in the event of conflict with China.

All of which presents a complicated terrain that means his second official visit will prove the better measure of Mr Albanese’s diplomatic abilities than his much-lauded first.


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