Tony Abbott has effectively said farewell to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as president of Indonesia.

Our prime minister was right to praise him. SBY has presided over remarkable change in Indonesia. During his presidency he has consolidated democracy and championed a moderate approach to Islam. He has effectively dealt with a rambunctious press, and the military withdrawal from politics is all but complete. He has also been resolute and successful in his pursuit of terrorists. He has been a firm friend to Australia, demonstrating through his 2010 speech to the Australian parliament that he understood the relationship and its complexities. In the future it is likely we will regret that we were not able to make more of his presidency to better consolidate the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

We were distracted by relatively minor issues: beef, boats, badly behaved Australians in Bali and spying. This meant we did not effectively deal with the substantial structural and social adjustments required to bring about deep-seated changes to trade, economic and security matters.

Australia and Indonesia are not natural partners. Australians don't know much about Indonesia and Indonesia doesn't routinely look south. There is much more work to be done to build a durable and mutually beneficial strategic partnership. The first thing is to explore and understand our individual and mutual interests.

Indonesia has interests in its territorial integrity, sea lines of communication (SLOC), countering terrorists, ensuring food security and coping with a rapidly growing population. And Jakarta is a leader in ASEAN.

Just like Indonesia, Australia is interested in trade and security (especially the SLOCs that carry our exports to global markets), and in Indonesia as a prospective market. Indonesia is on track to become a major economic power and a large market to our immediate north. In the event of unwelcome security developments in the region the archipelago to our north can act as a security buffer. In sum, a secure and prosperous Indonesia is firmly in Australia's interests.

Overall, Australia has the most to gain from the relationship with Indonesia. This means we need to proactively engage with Indonesia to support its growth and development. We need to be on the front foot.

Come October there will be a new president in Indonesia. With the departure of SBY, Australia should expect that the momentum and direction of change in Indonesia will continue. But we are entering uncharted territory. There is a choice of two men to replace SBY and we don't know much about either of them. In particular we don't know much about their foreign policy objectives or views towards Australia. The election for president will be held on 9 July so we should learn more during June as electioneering proceeds.

Until the April legislative elections in Indonesia, the likely victor was the popular Joko Widowo, known as 'Jokowi'. In recent weeks the alternate candidate, ex Special Forces General Prabowo Subianto, has gained momentum and closed the gap. A victory for Prabowo cannot be discounted. Recent poll results show Indonesians prefer Jokowi for handling the country's economy, social, law enforcement and security affairs. Prabowo is preferred for handling the country's political stability.

Both men have sensibly selected solid hands as vice-presidential running mates. Prabowo has chosen Hatta Rajasa, until recently the chief economics minister for SBY. Jokowi has chosen Jusuf Kalla, until 2010 vice president under SBY and chairman of the Golkar Party.

Jokowi is much admired for his 'man of the people' approach and informal style. Prabowo, being the son-in-law of President Suharto, is closely associated with previous regimes and has adopted a strong leadership approach in his electioneering. He carries some unresolved civil rights baggage from East Timor and unrest in Jakarta, and has previously been denied a visa to enter the US.

If Prabowo is elected, some deft diplomacy will be required from Australia, as he will expect to attend the G20 meeting scheduled for Brisbane in November. Through what will no doubt constitute a diplomatic flurry, Australia should respect the choice of the Indonesian people. This is a decision for Indonesia and we must be prepared to work with whoever is elected president. The relationship between Indonesia and Australia is too important to do anything else.

Photo courtesy of the Prime Minister's Office.