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Mending the Australia-Indonesia relationship

Mending the Australia-Indonesia relationship
Published 23 May 2014 

Prime Minister Tony Abbott threw away his 'get out of jail free' card when he decided not to accept an invitation earlier this month to meet Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) in Bali. This was a lost opportunity for the Australian PM. The Indonesian president was seeking a face-saving way of mending the strained relations between his country and Australia before he leaves office in the next few months.

Now Mr Abbott will need to travel to Jakarta in an effort to repair the relationship following a stoush in late 2013 over Australia's handling of spying allegations and the tough 'turn back the boats policy' implemented by his government. This won't be easy, as post-budget demands here in Australia and presidential election manoeuvring in Jakarta seem likely to swamp both leaders.

So will the Prime Minister be able to get relations back to normal before SBY stands down? Well, it depends on the timing and also what we call 'normal'.

While there is still significant resentment in Indonesia over Australia's stance on these two 'irritating' conflicts, the asylum seeker issue, as a matter of public interest, does not rate highly in Indonesia. And with 'boat people' no longer having any real access to Australia via people smugglers, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest there has been a significant drop in people entering Indonesia illegally as a transit country, potentially providing a 'win-win' for both countries against people smugglers.

The other major issue — the alleged spying that was at the heart of the diplomatic spat — was carried out against a president who, in the next few months, will retire from office with very little credibility or respect among Indonesians.

The incoming Indonesian president looks likely to be the hugely popular Joko Widodo (known as 'Jokowi'). While he lacks any real international experience, should he be elected, Jokowi would possibly want to put any previous regional spats behind him and be open to rebuilding the relationship with Australia. Both countries need each other in areas of regional security, intelligence, counter-terrorism and food supply. [fold]

Jokowi would however be a president with a focus on domestic issues during his first term, so relations with Australia may get far less attention than previously. Herein lies a potential difficulty if Australia tries to rebuild the relationship too late, and discovers that Jokowi — with PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has no real love of Australia, in the background — appears ambivalent towards his large southern neighbour.

The wild card in this scenario is the possibility of the aging but astute Jusuf Kalla being elected as Indonesia's vice-president (for the second time) following his formal nomination this week by the PDI-P as Jokowi's running mate. This would be good for Indonesia and most likely Australia, as Mr Kalla is business-oriented, comfortable with Australia, and has a strong international relations background. He would complement Jokowi well and together the two would provide Indonesia with stable and popular leadership.

In the meantime, SBY would probably prefer to mend the relationship with Mr Abbott's government now, to enhance his own legacy as a president who built close links with Australia and Australians. His preparedness for Mr Abbott to meet him in Bali and perhaps in Jakarta during June, along with the desire that the Indonesian ambassador HE Nadjib Riphat Kesoema return to Canberra before the July presidential election, are all signs that SBY does in fact want the relationship 'normalised' soon.

Mr Abbott doesn't have much time. And nor does SBY.

Despite Australia's hard-line and sometimes arrogant approach to our northern neighbour, Mr Abbott may have been able to mend the relationship during the Bali meeting without any compromise on his tough border protection policies. Now it becomes more difficult.

As to whether the longer-term relationship under Mr Abbott can move beyond 'normal' and progress sufficiently to take advantage of the huge opportunities that await a country like Australia as Indonesia emerges as a major world economic power on our doorstep, this is an entirely different matter. If we are to avoid being sidelined by regional competitors such as China, Japan and Singapore and truly seize the opportunities with Indonesia, we will have to move beyond a relationship that, for the past ten years, has been dominated by asylum seeker issues and Bali holidays gone wrong.

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