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After a slow start, Turnbull and Jokowi ready to get down to business

Jokowi’s main interest is economic cooperation. As he joked in Sydney: 'Let’s talk more about economics, I don’t want to talk a lot about politics – it gives me a headache'.

Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and Indonesia President Joko Widodo during talks at Admiralty House in Sydney on 26 February. (Photo: David Moir/AFP/Getty Images)
Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and Indonesia President Joko Widodo during talks at Admiralty House in Sydney on 26 February. (Photo: David Moir/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 6 Mar 2017 

Malcolm Turnbull is moving quickly to maintain the momentum of an improving relationship with Indonesia with a speedily organised visit to Jakarta this week. The prime minister’s trip comes hot on the heels of a long-awaited visit to Australia by Indonesian president Jokowi barely a week ago. With the niceties of courtesy calls now out of the way, Turnbull and Jokowi can get down to business on the details of the bilateral relationship.

Australia’s intentions are clear. At the end of Jokowi’s visit to Sydney, Turnbull announced that he would attend the Indian Ocean Rim Association Leaders’ Summit this week in Jakarta. The move was almost certainly prompted by interest in bolstering the bilateral relationship, rather than by negotiations within the typically low-key grouping. The summit will be the first of its kind in the association’s 20-year history, and is hosted by Indonesia as the current chair.

But from Jokowi’s side, signs of interest in developing the bilateral relationship are less clear. His stay in Australia was pleasant enough for a first visit as president, with some positive outcomes for both sides. Full military ties were restored following January’s upset over controversial language teaching materials at a Perth military base. Plans were laid for a new Australian consulate-general in Surabaya, and for more Indonesian language centres to open in Australia (presumably with better vetted teaching materials).

The leaders engaged in what the president’s office termed ‘morning walk diplomacy’; Australia’s answer to Jokowi’s trademark ‘blusukan’ style of meeting with the people, as Turnbull instigated a tour of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden. If the pictures are to be believed, morning crowds were thin on the ground in the gardens for the impromptu visit.

Meanwhile, the president received a rock star welcome at an arranged meet-and-greet with the Indonesian diaspora at the Darling Harbour Theatre, with around 2500 people attending a show featuring Indonesian celebrities, and the president delivering a PowerPoint presentation on Indonesia’s economic potential. With the feel of a nationalist rally, the president quizzed the crowd on the names of Indonesia’s provinces, and urged those working and studying in Australia to bring their skills back to the homeland.

'I am waiting for you to come home,' he told the cheering crowd.

What is clear is that Jokowi’s greatest area of interest regarding Australia is economic cooperation. As he joked with the crowd in Sydney: 'Let’s talk more about economics, I don’t want to talk a lot about politics – it gives me a headache'.

Progress was made during the president’s Australian visit on a number of trade and investment deals. Negotiations advanced on the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA), which is expected to be finalised by the end of the year. Indonesia agreed to significantly reduce tariffs on imports of Australian sugar, while Australia agreed to remove tariffs on pesticides and herbicides from Indonesia. And Australian funds were secured for a 10-year, $300-million infrastructure development program scheduled to launch next month.

Indonesia is hoping to boost bilateral and multilateral trade and investment with several nations through the IORA summit, including the expansion of trade in non-traditional markets, such as in Africa and the Middle East. Aside from developments on the IA-CEPA, Indonesia is also pursuing free trade deals with Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, India and Japan.

A reported 16 heads of state have confirmed attendance at the IORA summit, including from South Africa, Sri Lanka and Mozambique. A Business Summit on Monday will engage the private sector in talks on regional economic growth. Thomas Lembong, chairman of Indonesia’s Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) and a former trade minister in Jokowi’s cabinet, in local news has predicted a focus on South-South investment, building partnerships among developing nations, with African nations as a particular focus for Indonesia.

Turnbull will struggle to make a splash in Jakarta in the wake of a trip last week by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, who brought with him an entourage of 1500 people, about 460 tonnes of cargo, two escalators to help him on and off airplanes, and a couple of Mercedes-Benzes, with security for the visit bringing the Greater Jakarta area to a standstill. He also brought $6 billion in investment for an oil refinery in Central Java.

The prime minister will be accompanied by 120-strong Australian business delegation led by trade, tourism and investment minister Steve Ciobo. The delegation will spend the week in major cities across Indonesia, looking for ways for Australian businesses to find access to Indonesia’s growing middle class.

It seems that in a climate of warming relations, the economic angle may be the safest way for Australia to strengthen ties with its neighbour to the north.

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