By Ross B. Taylor
Prime Minister Tony Abbott threw away his ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card when he decided not to accept an invitation earlier this month to meet Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY ) in Bali. This was a lost opportunity for our PM as the Indonesian president sought a face-saving way of mending the strained relations between his country and Australia before he leaves office in the next few months.
Now Mr Abbott is making a stopover in Batam to meet SBY in an effort to repair the bi-lateral relationship following a stoush in late 2013 over Australia’s handling of spying allegations and the tough turn-back-the-boats policy implemented by his government. This won’t be easy as post-budget demands here in Australia, and the presidential election manoeuvring in Jakarta, have kept the leaders busy.
So will the prime minister be able to get relations back to normal before SBY stands down? Well, it depends on the timing and also what we call ‘normal’.
Whilst there is still significant resentment in Indonesia over Australia's stance on these two 'irritating' conflicts, the asylum seeker issue, as a matter of public interest, does not rate highly in Indonesia. And with boat people no longer having any real access to Australia via people smugglers, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest there has been a significant drop in people entering Indonesia illegally as the transit country, potentially providing a ‘win-win’ for both countries against people smugglers.
The other major issue - the alleged spying that was at the heart of the diplomatic spat - was carried out against a president who, in the next few months, will retire from office with very little credibility or respect amongst most Indonesians.
The incoming Indonesian president looks like being the popular Joko Widodo (known as 'Jokowi'). Whilst he lacks any real international experience, should he be elected, ‘Jokowi’ would possibly want to put any previous regional spats behind him, and be open to rebuilding the bi-lateral relationship with Australia; given that both countries need each other in areas of regional security, intelligence, terrorism, and food supply.
‘Jokowi’ would however, be a president whose focus would be on domestic issues during his first term, so relations with Australia may get far less attention than previously; and herein lies a potential difficulty if Australia tries to rebuild the relationship too late, and discovers that ‘Jokowi’ - with his party (PDI-P) leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri (who has no real love of Australia) in the background - appears ambivalent towards his large southern neighbour.
The ‘wild card’ in this scenario is the possibility of the aging but astute Jusuf Kalla being elected as Indonesia’s Vice-President (for the second time) following his formal nomination this week by the PDI-P as Jokowi’s presidential ‘running mate’. This could help Mr Abbott, as Mr Kalla is business-orientated, is comfortable with Australia, and has a strong international relations background. He would complement ‘Jokowi’ well and together provide Indonesia with stable leadership.
In the meantime, SBY would probably prefer to mend the relationship with Mr Abbott’s government now, to enhance his own legacy as a president who built close links with Australia and Australians. His direction to the Indonesian ambassador to Australia, H.E. Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, to return to Canberra later this month - despite Mr Abbott’s decision not to attend the Bali meeting - are all signs that SBY does in fact want the relationship ‘normalised’ soon.
With SBY’s legacy ambitions, and Indonesia’s focus on the upcoming presidential election, despite our ‘hard-line’ and sometimes arrogant approach to our northern neighbour, Mr Abbott may still mend the relationship without any compromise on his tough border protection policies.
As to whether the longer-term relationship under Mr Abbott can move beyond ‘normal’ and progress sufficiently to take advantage of the huge opportunities that await a country like Australia, as Indonesia emerges as a major world economic power on our doorstep, is an entirely different manner.
If we are to avoid being sidelined by regional competitors - including China, Japan and Singapore - and truly seize the opportunities with Indonesia, we are going to have to re-define the relationship that, for the past ten years, has been dominated by asylum seekers issues and Bali holidays gone wrong.
Ross B. Taylor AM is the President of the Indonesia Institute (Inc) based in WA