Stepping carefully Down Under
Outcomes and hopes may not sync on President Joko Widodo's Australia visit
04 November 2016
By: Duncan Graham

Editor's note: after Strategic Review published this story, President Joko Widodo canceled his visit to Australia due to "the security situation in Jakarta" following the protests and disturbances in the capital on Friday, November 4. However, the points raised here about the Indonesia-Australia relationship remain valid and pertinent.

President Joko Widodo’s door knock on November 6-8 comes a year after new Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s invite when the men spent a half-day together in Jakarta. That speed date was billed as a relationships “reset” after drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed in April, 2015. Australia was outraged and ambassadors recalled.

President Joko was urged to rapidly ride the goodwill wave that followed Turnbull’s unseating of Tony Abbott. The former prime minister had been on the nose in Indonesia for coupling Australia’s 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami aid with appeals to end the death penalty.

The Indonesian president ignored the advice. Turnbull’s popularity rapidly waned. In July he called an election but plans went awry.

His conservative government now holds office by a whisker. A rise in right-wing bigotry has let the Islamophobic One Nation Party into the Senate, and the mining-dependent economy has slumped.

Then Indonesians learned they’re unloved. An Australia-Indonesia Centre survey showed 47 percent of Australians view their northern neighbor unfavorably – preferring folk from almost anywhere else in Asia – even repressive China.

On the ledger’s other side, 87 per cent of Indonesians had positive views of Australia, mostly gleaned from the media for few visit; here’s another matter to address as visa rules and costs are travel deterrents.

When announcing President Joko’s first State visit Down Under, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi promoted the nebulous STD formula – security, trade, and defense – as reason enough for chats.

Free trade is top of the menu, but unlikely to yield as Indonesia is deeply protectionist. More Australian investment depends on Indonesia establishing the rule of law and crushing corruption.

Marsudi said the president’s trip would ”enhance economic cooperation”. Also in bold type: counter-terrorism, cyber crime and people smuggling plus fish and beef issues. All necessary – and insufficient. 

“Bi-lateral ties” feature so commonly in these pronouncements that every male delegate should wear one; female negotiators could model “close-knit relationships” which are forever “warm”.

President Joko’s attendance at the 2014 G20 Brisbane summit was not a state visit. This time he may include Sydney where his eldest son, businessman Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 28, had some tertiary education.

He is expected to address the Federal Parliament in Canberra but he’s neither an orator in his own tongue nor a competent English speaker. He won’t eclipse his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s stirring speech in 2012 labeled “transformative” by hardnose political commentators.

The euphoria didn’t last. A year later international media revealed that Australian spies had been bugging the phones of SBY and his wife Ani. Abbott refused to apologize.

There’ll be more official announcements as President Joko’s schedules are sharpened, maybe a few cultural exchanges and some flavorsome clichés. Turnbull has already matched Marsudi’s rhetoric with statements about “deep and broad-ranging” partnerships.

So far nothing to indicate any lasting intellectual engagement to dilute the distrust exposed by the AIC poll. Indonesian language and culture studies, which should be the foundation for better understanding, are dropping off the curriculum despite academic protests.

Earlier this year Australian National University Professor Frank Bongiorno wrote of Australian leaders’ ideas about Asia. He said many have “a narrower vision of relations with Asia … As in the past, the temptation is to try to bend Asia to the economic and political purposes of the present”.

Some issues won’t bend to fit the Australian agenda. Seaweed farmers in the eastern islands want President Joko to scrap the 1997 treaty between Indonesia and Australia on the Timor Sea Exclusive Economic Zone.

The farmers are suing for damages allegedly caused by the Montara 30,000 barrel oil spill which polluted the Timor Sea after a 2009 drill rig blowout.

The treaty, signed when dictator Soeharto held power, is also under attack by Timor Leste. The former Indonesian province wants the document reworked to give a greater share of undersea resources. The parties have been before the UN Conciliation Commission.

Should the mild-mannered Javanese leader speak up, Australia is likely to use the “legal processes underway” excuse to dodge debate.

Less easy to avoid is Indonesia’s treatment of Papuan dissidents which concerns human rights advocates. It’s also rattling Pacific nations which see a Melanesian bond with indigenous Papuans.  

Vanuatu and Solomon Islands raised their worries at a UN Human Rights Council session in June. They were slapped down by Indonesian delegates using their standard “sovereign rights” argument against outside involvement in domestic issues.

Australia’s official position has long been non-interference and recognition of Indonesia’s “Unitary State”, but NGOs don’t do the diplomatic waltz.  

Allegations of civilians abused by heavy-handed military don’t get much airplay in Indonesia; but they do in Australia where church groups and activists back self-determination for what they call West Papua.

The issue of almost 14,000 asylum seekers stranded in the archipelago en-route to Australia when the smugglers’ boats were stopped may also get an airing. Australia wants a “regional solution” but Indonesians say that’s NATO – No Action, Talk Only.

Indonesia’s harsh treatment of gays is another issue which might rile protestors.

Although no Australians are currently on death row, abhorrence of capital punishment is widespread and likely to be raised in demonstrations. Security will minimize direct presidential embarrassment, but accompanying journalists will not ignore placard wavers.

The shriller the statements, the more Indonesians will be inflamed as nationalism sweeps the nation. After the executions of Chan and Sukumaran The Courier Mail ran a front-page mock up of a smiling Jokowi showing a bloody hand. 

Anything similar this time could result in the president cancelling his walkabout and staying home where the electorate still loves its leader.

But all this could be drowned out by an event far from Australian-Indonesian relations, with the media typhoon swirling around results of the US Presidential election, leaving space for little else.



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