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The question for Jokowi: Indonesia first, but can Australia be second?

The topics likely to be covered in bilateral talks reflect Jokowi's domestic-first agenda.

The Jokowi inaugration, 20 October 2014, Jakarta (Photo: Flickr/Kreshna Aditya)
The Jokowi inaugration, 20 October 2014, Jakarta (Photo: Flickr/Kreshna Aditya)
Published 24 Feb 2017 

President Jokowi is finally making an official visit to Australia this weekend. But while he spends the weekend shaking hands in Sydney, the Indonesian leader may be concentrating more on how his Australia visit plays back home.

The visit comes more than two years into Jokowi’s presidency, and more than a year after Malcolm Turnbull made Indonesia his first international stop as prime minister, like all Australian leaders before him since Keating.

The delayed timing of Jokowi’s visit reflects his primarily domestic focus as President, showing a tendency to put Indonesia first. The former town mayor and furniture-maker is not known for his prowess in matters of foreign policy. He seemed almost surprised when his orders for the execution of foreign drug smugglers – which played well to a nationalist domestic audience – caused ripples internationally and briefly disrupted diplomatic relations with Australia.

The schedule of the President’s visit also reflects an introspective approach. Yes, he will be meeting with Australia’s Prime Minister, Governor-General and business leaders. But he will also be taking the opportunity to perform his trademark ‘blusukan’, or informal meet-and-greet, with the Indonesian diaspora. This stands in contrast to Turnbull’s experience of Jakarta, when he was thrust by Jokowi into the sweaty and bustling Tanah Abang market to meet with the locals. It seems that even while abroad, Jokowi will be mainly playing to the folks back home.

The flagged topics to be covered in bilateral talks further reflect a domestic-first agenda. The President will raise bilateral efforts on counter-terrorism and deradicalisation, mostly focused on issues within Indonesia’s borders. Cooperation on food security and education will be discussed, and opportunities raised for economic partnerships – safe ground for leaders who are both former businessmen. Maritime security and trade, as one of the more familiar foreign policy topics for Jokowi, will likely feature.

Aware of the million-plus Australian tourists pouring into Indonesia, and mostly Bali, each year, Jokowi will also take on the role of tourism ambassador, promoting alternative holiday spots to Australians. He is currently working on a program to accelerate the development of ten tourist destinations across Indonesia, from the Borobudur temple in Yogyakarta to Sumatra’s Lake Toba and dive spots in Wakatobi, Sulawesi.

More sensitive provinces like West Papua are likely to be avoided in conversation. While Jokowi has made efforts to develop and open up the province, separation from Indonesia is not on the cards under his presidency, and reports of human rights violations continue to surface. Public protests are planned in Australia during the president’s visit, but it’s unclear whether Turnbull will broach the issue.

The Indonesian President is also under pressure to raise the matter of the 2009 Montara oil spill in the Timor Sea. Leaders from Eastern Indonesia, where the oil spill continues to damage livelihoods and the environment, urged Jokowi to cancel his planned visit to Australia back in November in protest against inaction on Australia’s part. Their call was taken up by a senior minister in December, and Australian Ambassador Paul Grigson has since entered discussions over the issue.

The so-called ‘storm in a teacup’ over teaching materials at military training facility in Perth shows that cross-cultural misunderstandings are still a problem for the bilateral relationship. The national ideology of Pancasila still carries significant cultural weight in Indonesia, and is an important part of Jokowi’s nationalist understanding.

The Pancasila was created to deal with the issue that Jokowi is now facing – an encroachment of religion into politics. It places belief in God as a founding principle of the state without putting any one religion over another. This is an important distinction in the current political climate, where the legitimacy of the capital’s governor is under attack partly on the basis of his minority ethnicity and religion.

It was this issue that prompted Jokowi to postpone his planned visit to Australia back in November. The same wave of protests continued in Jakarta this week, though dampened by heavy rains and a cooling political climate. In response, Jokowi publicly urged a return to Pancasila, saying that perhaps the demonstrations were a sign that democratic freedoms had ‘gone too far’.

Can we expect anything like former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s widely praised 2012 address to the Australian parliament? Probably not. While Australia-Indonesia relations are currently stable, it’s unlikely that Jokowi will make any concerted efforts to really advance the relationship during his visit. More than anything, his trip appears as a delayed courtesy call.

Understanding that Jokowi puts ‘Indonesia first’, Australia’s usual push to highlight the strength of our relationship with Indonesia during the president’s visit may come across as if we’re asking: ‘But can Australia be second?’.

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