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Albanese’s trip to Jakarta a chance to strengthen Australia–Indonesia ties

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By going to Jakarta so early in his prime ministership, Anthony Albanese is practising what he preached during the election campaign about the importance he intends attaching to Indonesia. He’s right to position Indonesia in this way, even if rushing to its capital so soon after his election—something no Indonesian president is ever likely to reciprocate—tends to underscore the asymmetry in the relationship. Only the United States and China matter more to Australia’s future strategic interests.

Albanese starts with several advantages. Indonesian observers have often perceived Labor as understanding Indonesia better than the Coalition, or at least wanting to. As one Indonesian academic in international affairs recently put it: ‘Historically, Labor has had a greater regard for Indonesia’. Many recall the Hawke-Keating era as the high point in the relationship.

Albanese is no stranger to Indonesia, having visited the country both as a minister during the last Labor governments and as opposition leader in 2019. He also met Indonesian President Joko Widodo during Jokowi’s last visit to Canberra in 2020. As a result, the two leaders already know and seemingly respect each other. And few things are as important as exhibiting that respect when it comes to engaging Indonesia.

Another advantage for Albanese is the two leaders’ shared experiences of struggle from humble socio-economic origins to national leadership, journeys that left similar, though not identical, impressions on their personas. Albanese’s personal story and easygoing, unostentatious personality will likely resonate with any average Indonesian curious enough to pay attention to his visit. They will chime with the narrative that helped take Jokowi to the presidential palace.

Another is their shared passion for nation building through infrastructure, and their conviction that access to quality education advances both individuals and nations, as their own lives testify. Both subjects are bound to be high on their meeting’s agenda and the conversation will be easy and enthusiastic. A side-trip to Monash University’s pioneering campus in Indonesia, the only foreign university with such a presence, should be on Albanese’s program if it isn’t already.

Yet another advantage is their shared compassion on some aspects of social policy. Jokowi has declared a special interest in supporting people with disabilities. Albanese can share Australia’s experience with the National Disability Insurance Scheme .

In these areas, the two leaders will have grounds to build on whatever rapport they have already struck. While that’s a necessary condition for the sort of partnership the two nations need, it is far from sufficient, especially for Jokowi. Returning from his first-ever overseas trip as president in November 2014, he stressed that while befriending all countries was fine, he intended paying most attention to those that provided ‘the most benefits to the [Indonesian] people’, adding that he wasn’t interested in those that provided none.

Jokowi’s view of international affairs may have matured somewhat since then, but his transactional character has almost certainly not changed. He will value anything Albanese can offer Indonesia by way of practical support for its development priorities. The more Australia can work with like-minded partners such as the US and Japan to improve the quality and governance of Indonesia’s infrastructure development, and the more that Australia’s modestly beefed-up aid for Southeast Asia can help Indonesia address such pressing issues as food security and pandemic and climate change resilience, the more resonant Albanese’s message to Indonesia’s leadership will be.

One initiative Albanese might consider proposing is a joint research program like that which Australia already has with India, perhaps with a heavier focus on such fields as agriculture, biomedical technologies, clean energy, food and water security, and marine science. This would appeal to Jokowi, whose recent efforts to woo Tesla and SpaceX chief Elon Musk to Indonesia highlight his interest in fostering scientific cooperation and ambitions for his nation’s technological advancement.

Other economic and trade subjects will be fundamental to the visit. Global economic uncertainties and problems, and their impacts on both economies, necessitate this. And subject to the risks climate change and other factors pose to its growth trajectory, Indonesia’s rise to becoming an economic powerhouse has never been lost on Australian governments of both persuasions. The Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement reflects the aspirations for closer commercial ties that both countries have identified as a result. But IA-CEPA remains largely aspirational, principally because of the limited complementarities of the nations’ economies and Indonesia’s often unattractive investment environment. Giving too much prominence to this aspect of the relationship risks raising expectations that aren’t likely to be met soon.

For all they have in common, the two leaders diverge in important ways. Jokowi is no social democrat on economic policy. He is Indonesia’s first president from a business background, and it shows. The more his presidency has progressed, the more his agenda has aligned with the interests of business and the less with those of the common folk who voted for him. Inequality has risen markedly. Plutocrats, including in Jokowi’s cabinet, have flourished. The central plank in his economic reforms, the jobs creation law, sparked major and sustained protests from unions, environmental groups and other civil society organisations over the many provisions privileging business interests over those of labour and the environment.

Nor is Jokowi a liberal democrat. During his tenure, democratic norms and practices have regressed. Liberal values, never dominant in socially conservative Indonesian society, have waned. Critics have claimed, with some reason, that his singular focus on economic development has often come at the expense of human rights and good governance. Indonesia’s national anti-corruption body has been neutered. Minorities, notably the LGBTQ community, are coming under growing pressure from conservative religious bodies and could face worse persecution under flagged new laws. Jokowi has done little if anything to counter these developments, some of which his own vice president and ministers have pushed.

Papua threatens to become an exemplar of Jokowi’s governance shortcomings and tendency to see development as a panacea for longstanding indigenous grievance. Unrest is rising. His administration’s unpopular plans to subdivide the region into additional provinces look set only to worsen matters. Nothing in the relationship poses more risks of distrust and bilateral disharmony than how Jakarta handles this restive territory and how sections of the Australian community, including within the parliament, respond to its actions.

In these areas of Jokowi’s administration, it is hard to imagine trends less in sync with what the Albanese government promises for Australians, or less likely to appeal to a parliament set for a likely 12 Greens senators and four Greens members of the House of Representatives.

Already some Indonesian observers are expecting a Labor government to put a greater onus on human rights and social issues in discussions with Indonesia than a Coalition government would. Albanese would be on sure ground in affirming his government’s determination to support international human rights instruments (to which Indonesia itself is a signatory), especially in any discussion about the rise of authoritarianism around the world. On Papua specifically, Jokowi will expect the usual reiteration of Australia’s support for Indonesia’s sovereignty, and he’ll get it. Albanese will need to tread carefully beyond this if his message is to get traction, but he could stress that Australia shares Indonesia’s interest in the region being prosperous, peaceful and governed in accordance with the principles of its special autonomy.

Albanese will no doubt arrive well briefed on the fundamental differences between Indonesia and Australia on international affairs, including tensions in the Indo-Pacific arising from China’s increasing assertiveness. Jakarta is not blind to China’s threat. It’s seen it firsthand in its northern waters. Its concerns about Canberra’s position partly reflect the gap between Australia’s focus on military deterrence as a key element in countering China’s ambitions and Indonesia’s prioritising of dialogue and cooperation to this end. Albanese’s participation in the Quad meeting and remarks on China will have confirmed Jakarta’s view that Australia remains set on a different course to its own. No amount of rapport among leaders will alter this reality.

This year’s G20 leaders’ summit in Bali risks bringing differences on Ukraine to a head. For doctrinal and pragmatic reasons, Jakarta refuses to hold Vladimir Putin culpable for a war whose economic impacts have reached Indonesia. Determined to use the event to showcase Indonesia, Jokowi will insist on Albanese’s attendance regardless of Putin’s presence and his offences against international law that Indonesia claims to hold dear. Much could happen in the interim to engineer an acceptable compromise that would see the summit proceed, however effectively, with its full membership. Albanese’s default position should be to commit Australia’s support for finding and supporting that compromise, in conjunction with like-minded partners such as Japan.

AUKUS, specifically Australia’s plans to acquire nuclear-propelled submarines, will not have faded from Indonesian minds simply with the election of a different Australian government. For some Indonesians, the AUKUS launch revived memories of the Howard-era ‘deputy sheriff’ tag and evoked the image of a conservative Australia desperately clinging to the Anglosphere and turning its back on its region. Jakarta’s official line depicted AUKUS as a catalyst for a regional arms race, a narrative Beijing was also quick to promote.

The salient issue here is the impact of the submarines on the nuclear non-proliferation regime should their power source be weapons-grade uranium. It would be tin-eared to dismiss Indonesia’s concerns out of hand, however hyperbolic its rhetoric on this has been. Albanese can respond that Australia and the US and UK have committed to an approach to the submarines that strengthens non-proliferation benchmarks and prevents diversion of highly enriched uranium for any other purpose. He could also reassure Jokowi that Australia is in discussions with the International Atomic Energy Agency to find a safeguards solution and might propose ongoing consultation to assuage Indonesia’s concerns. This would underscore a shared commitment to non-proliferation.

Albanese’s domestic agenda on gender, indigenous affairs and a strong anti-corruption watchdog will strike an attractive chord to any younger, liberal Indonesians paying attention to developments in Australia. His trip might serve as a prologue for further efforts his government could make on public diplomacy and towards enhancing Australia’s ‘soft power’ in Indonesia.

Albanese’s visit therefore offers scope for recapturing Indonesian attention invariably drawn northwards because of the economic heft of China, Japan and Korea, and the diplomatic and security imperatives linked to both ASEAN and China’s behaviour in the South China Sea. But building the sort of relationship fit for our nations’ shared strategic purposes will require sustained engagement and mutually supportive cooperation across many areas, notwithstanding our inevitable differences. By presenting himself as the personable, trustworthy leader of a significant regional power intent on always treating Indonesia as a valued partner in its own right, Albanese can reaffirm the more positive Indonesian perceptions of its southern neighbour.

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