The Australia-Indonesia Relationship: A Snail’s Pace, but Still Moving Forward

11 February 2020 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

A delegation led by Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo visited Australia on 8-11 February to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries. During the visit, Jokowi addressed the Australian Parliament and discussed the final steps in the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) with Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Jokowi also met with a number of other Australian officials and attended the Indonesia-Australia business roundtable.

Comment

The historic visit by Jokowi was not celebrated by the signing of a swathe of deals and agreements; rather, it was largely symbolic and more about looking ahead to the future of the Australia-Indonesia relationship. Jokowi’s first appointment was attending a state reception with his delegation at Government House, where Governor-General David Hurley addressed the room in Bahasa Indonesia. The gesture of speaking Bahasa Indonesia stands in stark contrast to the attitude of many in Australia, where the study of the Indonesian language has been steadily declining. That decline has been fuelled by a lack of interest in and understanding of Indonesia, to the extent that only one-third of Australians in a recent poll knew that Indonesia is a democracy; most expressed no desire to learn more about the country. Encouraging Australians to learn more about their close neighbour should result in significant improvements in people-to-people relations, although that will likely come after closer business-to-business partnerships.

Later during his visit, Jokowi addressed the Australian Parliament, becoming the fifteenth foreign head of state, and the second Indonesian president, to do so. Nothing unexpected came out of Jokowi’s speech, in which he outlined four broad priority areas for the bilateral relationship: to continue advocating the values of democracy and diversity: the promotion of open, free and fair economic co-operation; collaboration to become development partners in the Pacific region; and working together to preserve the environment and ensure sustainable development. Real co-operation under those four banners, however, will not take place unless a closer economic relationship is first realised.

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told the press during the visit that, ‘The President is visiting right after the ratification of the IA-CEPA, so for the next five years we will have a clear road map based on the action plan we have agreed on. Once the economic pillar is clear, the other pillars will also become clear.’ Establishing that economic pillar was the focus of the President’s visit. Now that both parliaments have ratified the IA-CEPA, the foreign ministers of both countries signed a 100-day plan of action for the implementation of the agreement. Once implemented, the IA-CEPA provides an opportunity for closer economic ties by enabling more bilateral trade, providing greater investment opportunities and allowing for closer business-to-business ties. There are, however, obstacles that need to be overcome, specifically the need in Indonesia for significant economic reforms, which Jokowi struggled to achieve in his first term in government.

Even if the IA-CEPA can overcome the numerous obstacles that it faces, there is still a long road ahead for the bilateral relationship. After seventy years of formal relations, both Australia and Indonesia are left with a relationship that is marred by lacklustre economic relations and poor cultural understanding. While there may be grand visions of the future presented by the leaders of both countries, it is apparent that many of their citizens continue to approach the relationship with trepidation. Over time, that may change, but it will take more than one economic agreement to bring the two countries closer together.

From a strategic perspective, shared concerns over maritime security could become a catalyst for hastening the slowly evolving relationship. Reports that Morrison has offered Jokowi assistance in surveillance for Indonesia’s northern waters underline a significant common interest. While trying to avoid becoming embroiled in the South China Sea dispute, Indonesia has taken recent steps to secure its northern waters that have been prone to frequent incursions by Chinese fishing vessels accompanied by coast guard vessels. Those measures have included the establishment of a military base on Natuna Besar Island, the renaming of the part of the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone lying to the north of the Natuna Islands as the North Natuna Sea, and establishing fishing grounds in the northern waters. For Australia, working with Indonesian policymakers through the provision of both moral and tangible support, as Jakarta seeks to address its sovereignty concerns, could yield promising results for the broader relationship.

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