In conjunction with this month's launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on the role and continued relevance of embassies.



Foreign minister Julie Bishop on Monday opened Australia's biggest, most expensive embassy — in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The $415-million complex set on five hectares of land in central Jakarta is designed to host around 500 staff members from 14 agencies, a five-storey chancery, staff accommodation, recreation facilities and a medical centre. For those who argue that ambassadorial diplomacy is dead, DFAT is clearly not listening.

Our ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Grigson, says the size of the embassy reflects the growing size of Australia's 'diplomatic footprint' in Indonesia. A day after the opening, Grigson followed Bishop from Java to Sulawesi, where the foreign minister opened a new consulate-general, Australia's third diplomatic post in Indonesia besides the embassy in Jakarta and a consulate-general in Bali.

Initially, plans for the new Jakarta embassy did not reflect a growing friendship, but heightened security concerns for embassy staff. A 2004 car bombing, which killed nine people and injured more than 150, sparked discussions on how to improve security at the embassy, which then fronted a major road in central Jakarta. The new embassy is set back from the roadside, with intensified security measures.

Nonetheless, unlike the bunker-style embassies of trouble spots in other parts of the world, the new Jakarta embassy in its planning stage was hailed as 'stylish'. Melbourne architecture practice Denton Corker Marshall aimed to produce 'a reflection of an expression of Australia' with earthy and metallic tones recalling Australia's natural landscapes and mineral wealth. Construction was carried out by Indonesian company Total Bangun Persada, which has previously worked on malls, hotels, and apartment complexes, in partnership with Hong Kong-based company Leighton Asia, which specialises in renewable energy infrastructure.

Beyond its stone-clad security walls, the embassy aims for environmental and social integration with the surrounding area. Government-funded infrastructure upgrades are being carried out in nearby neighbourhoods, and resource consumption is minimised by use of technologies for rainwater collection and recycling, as well as solar heating for water.

Some remarkable landscaping was carried out to uproot and replant four banyan trees from the original construction site. The four trees, estimated to be around 100 years old, were carefully relocated on the embassy grounds in an effort that found a place in the Indonesian World Records Museum (MURI). The museum located in the city of Semarang in central Java is the home of the Indonesian version of the Guinness World Records, with other recent achievements including feats such as 'Longest Non-Stop Ironing Session', and 'Greatest Number of People Blowing Bubble Gum' (one that neighbouring Singapore is unlikely to beat anytime soon).

Relocation of the banyan trees was important not only for landscaping reasons, but also to respect local beliefs. Many Javanese believe that banyan trees are home to sacred spirits, and old trees in particular may be awarded heritage status by the city government. The British embassy in 2003 received a letter of complaint from the Jakarta governor after trimming back a banyan tree that was blocking the view of security cameras.

At the embassy opening on Monday, Grigson tweeted that Indonesia's State Secretary, Pratikno, said Indonesians were proud to see Australia's biggest embassy in their capital. But for all the resources poured into the new embassy and consulate-general, it's difficult at this stage to know what the actual diplomatic impacts might be. 

Australia is still reflexively referred to in local media reports as the 'Kangaroo Nation', and general knowledge of our country is limited. Australian media shows a similarly limited general knowledge of Indonesia. Reports on the new consulate-general in Sulawesi this week gave the capital Makassar the exaggerated label of being a 'radical hotbed'. Bishop said the city was chosen for its importance as a commercial hub for Australians doing business in eastern Indonesia.