Malcolm Turnbull's visit to Jakarta this week did not signal any drastic changes for the direction of the Australia-Indonesia relationship, but it did leave relations considerably warmer than before. So warm, in fact, that both the prime minister and his Indonesian counterpart were forced to remove their jackets and ties.
Visiting the cramped Tanah Abang market in Central Jakarta on Thursday, Turnbull reportedly followed President Jokowi's lead in stripping off a layer to greet stall owners and shoppers in the sweltering heat. Turnbull had asked to join the president on one of his trademark blusukan visits to meet directly with the people and hear their concerns. The last foreign visitor to do so was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who (according to reports) lasted a mere five minutes in the sweaty marketplace.
Jokowi told reporters that he wanted to introduce Australia's new prime minister to the Indonesian people. Security arrangements for Turnbull's market visit worsened traffic congestion in the city centre, but Jakartans didn't appear to hold it against the Australian prime minister and gave him a warm welcome. It's doubtful that Tony Abbott, Turnbull's predecessor, would have met with a similarly friendly reception, considering the nationwide protests against his comments earlier in the year that implied an expectation of reciprocity for past aid contributions in answering clemency pleas.
Jokowi further added that he wanted to show Turnbull around Southeast Asia's biggest textiles market. Showcasing the size of Tanah Abang may be a reminder of the size of the Indonesian market in general, as Jakarta prepares to receive a delegation of 300 Australian trade and business leaders next week. As former businessmen, both leaders were keen to focus on business ties in talks on Thursday, particularly as Jokowi continues to signal a change from the more nationalist approach of the early months of his presidency.
Business is currently the safest territory for Australia's engagement with Indonesia, since ties in other areas deteriorated under previous governments. Clumsy handling of spying revelations, unilateral boat turn-backs, public protests, allegations of paid people smuggling, executions and the subsequent — and unprecedented — recalling of an ambassador marred Australia-Indonesia relations during Abbott's time as prime minister. Much ongoing government-to-government work in recent months has helped return relations to a level amiable enough for Turnbull to make the visit.
People-to-people relations may take longer to repair. Following the loudly protested executions of two Australians in Indonesia this year, it's questionable whether Jokowi would receive such a warm public reception in Australia as Turnbull did in Indonesia. Meanwhile, Turnbull's stance on boat turn-backs, addressing allegations of paid people smugglers and other contentious issues may yet impact his image in the eyes of the Indonesian public.
After a year in power, Jokowi is still finding his feet as president and gathering the support base he needs to implement his policies. Public pressure is growing for a second cabinet reshuffle, while pressure within Jokowi's party is building to replace the attorney general — who holds the responsibility for ordering executions for death row convicts — because of corruption allegations. As a new leader, Turnbull has the opportunity to establish closer ties with Jokowi as he enters the next phase of his presidency.
Before Turnbull, every Australian prime minister since Paul Keating has made Indonesia their first international stop, no matter what their approach to Australia's closest Asian neighbour. This visit does not represent a break from past leaders in establishing any kind of 'special' Australia-Indonesia relationship. However, his warm reception in Jakarta this week, his business focus for engagement, and his timing at a transitional stage of Jokowi's presidency, indicate an opportunity to build warmer, stronger ties during the two leaders' terms.
Photo by Jevayona Delita/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)