Dave McRae is a Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Institute in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. He is also an Associate at the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society.
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is to make his first bilateral visit to Australia on Sunday. Almost five years have passed since the previous bilateral visit by an Indonesian leader, made by Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in July 2012. The intervening period has been one of turbulence for Australia-Indonesia ties, with serious rows over spying, boat turnbacks and executions.
When Jokowi was elected in 2014, there was widespread concern as to how bilateral ties would fare under a president who did not share Yudhoyono’s personal affection for Australia. Almost immediately, these concerns appeared borne out, as Jokowi aloofly rejected Australian entreaties on behalf of its two citizens, leaving Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran to face the firing squad in April 2015.
Coming so early in the Jokowi presidency, the row over these executions appeared to mark an ominous departure from the amicable ties of the Yudhoyono years. One Australian journalist wrote at the time of discussion in foreign policy circles that Australia may effectively have to wait out the remaining four-and-a-half years of Jokowi’s term.
In Indonesia, too, the indignation at Australia’s advocacy for Chan and Sukumaran was palpable. Senior Indonesian government minister Luhut Pandjaitan wrote in the Straits Times of Singapore that the manner and tone of Australia’s advocacy had been unacceptable. At a popular level, one encountered anger across Indonesia at then Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s comments appearing to link the executions to Australia’s tsunami aid.
Viewed through this lens, it is remarkable to see Jokowi setting foot on Australian shores in 2017. But panning out, Jokowi’s visit fits with an underlying belief long held by each country’s government that as neighbours, Australia and Indonesia need to get along. Even with this belief, the two countries’ leaders have often acted in ways that aggravate ties. But when relations have been genuinely strained, the same leaders have typically sought to mend fences. As a result, Australia-Indonesia ties have gained incrementally in depth and warmth, even in the midst of frequent rows and ructions.
This underlying commitment to build neighbourly ties has seen every Australian prime minister visit Jakarta within their first year in office, at least as far back as Malcolm Fraser. Malcolm Turnbull’s Jakarta visit in late 2015 to reset ties six months after the executions thus continued a tradition stretching back more than four decades. Soon after his visit, the annual defence and foreign ministers meeting resumed, after being stalled since 2013.
The same commitment has seen both governments agree to move on from each of the serious rifts in the relationship over the past decade, even when the underlying issues have not been fully resolved. These rows have stemmed from Australia’s acceptance of a boat-load of asylum seekers from West Papua in 2006, from Edward Snowden’s revelations of Australian spying in 2013, and from the execution in 2015 of Chan and Sukumaran.
In the first of these rows, Indonesia withdrew its ambassador after Australia granted asylum to 43 Papuan independence activists, a step Indonesia had never taken before. The activists sailed to Australia on a canoe bearing the independence movement’s Morning Star flag, a provocative political statement. Then Prime Minister John Howard could not deny asylum to the activists, as Yudhoyono wished, but did introduce legislation to parliament, later withdrawn, aiming to deter further arrivals by mandating offshore processing. Although Indonesia remains distrustful of Australia’s support for its sovereignty over West Papua, the two countries swiftly moved on. The recalled envoy returned after three months, and Australia and Indonesia concluded a landmark security treaty later the same year.
Friendship with benefits
Indonesia withdrew its ambassador a second time in 2013 and suspended several areas of security co-operation after the Snowden leaks revealed that Australia had sought to tap the phones of senior Indonesian figures, including Yudhoyono’s wife. Despite Yudhoyono’s clear disdain for then prime minister Tony Abbott’s unapologetic response to the revelations, Yudhoyono nevertheless gave a long exposition of the well-established “friendship between the nations of Indonesia and Australia” and the benefits it created in his speech announcing Indonesia’s response to the wiretapping. Yudhoyono also agreed to restore full relations before he left office the next year, despite Australia giving no binding commitment to discontinue espionage.
Continuing this pattern of moving on, when Indonesia executed two Australians in 2015, despite months of intensive Australian diplomacy, Tony Abbott reached for conciliatory rhetoric in his press conference the following morning. Abbott called himself a friend of Indonesia, and said the vast majority of Australians would see themselves as friends of Indonesia too, even as he announced the withdrawal of Australia’s ambassador and the suspension of ministerial contact. Just five weeks later, the ambassador had returned.
The frequency of these rows has often seen Australia-Indonesia ties critiqued as weak and superficial, and not without some justification. But these critiques miss the resilience of the relationship, stemming from a shared belief that constructive ties must persist. Whether or not Jokowi shares his predecessor’s personal affection for Australia, his visit demonstrates his government’s commitment to neighbourly ties remains in place.