June 13, 2022
JAKARTA – President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has dealt with three Australian prime ministers from the Liberal Party since he came to power in October 2014: Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison. He had more than just good personal and official relationships with them. But the President reportedly sensed a trust deficit from the Australian side toward Indonesia and in terms of regional and global security, particularly when it came to the United States’ ambition to dominate the Indo-Pacific.
Under President Jokowi, Indonesian-Australian relations have remained free from “turbulence” as they have matured, also because bilateral ties concern more than just the value and volume of trade. But amid the increasing regional rivalry between the US and China, Jokowi is now paying more attention to Canberra, which has taken a confrontational stance toward Beijing.
Amid the uncertainty in global security, Jokowi is more willing to elevate Indonesia’s security and defense cooperation with Australia. But the neighboring country’s lack of trust has been rather disturbing for him, especially after Canberra established the trilateral security pact AUKUS with the United Kingdom and the US.
Then-prime minister Morrison refused to share the alliance’s plans with Jokowi until the very last minute. Jokowi was also annoyed by Morrison’s advice that Indonesia exclude Russian President Vladimir Putin from the G20 Bali Summit in November. In fact, Western G20 countries stated they did not want to see Putin in Bali because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Jokowi has thus warmly welcomed Labor’s return to power under newly elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, knowing well that Indonesia had enjoyed smoother relations with Australia when that party was at the helm in Canberra. The Indonesian public also generally shares Jokowi’s expectations for the new Labor government, as seen on social media.
The three-day state visit of Prime Minister Albanese, especially the bilateral summit at Bogor Palace on Monday, surprisingly received wide media coverage in a warm and positive tone.
It has been a long-standing tradition for a newly elected Australian leader to make Jakarta their first stop on an overseas visit, while Indonesian leaders prioritize ASEAN states, Japan and China.
Jokowi was particularly happy with Albanese’s assurance that he would attend the G20 summit, whether Putin attended or not.
“Today, I informed President Widodo that I will attend the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Bali in November,” Albanese told a joint press conference with his host Jokowi, following the bilateral summit. “The work of the G20 is critical at this time of global economic uncertainty,” said the Labor leader, who described his visit as “heartfelt”.
The Prime Minister knows very well that the G20 summit is everything for Jokowi. The President is rarely interested in foreign policy, but hosting the summit of the world’s largest 20 economies will be the crown of his international achievements. Jokowi will not bow to pressures to withdraw Indonesia’s invitation to Russia, a G20 member. And as a Javanese, Jokowi will be very good at “punishing” anyone who tries to torpedo the Bali meeting.
Morrison often boasted that Jokowi was one of his closest friends and he was aware that his call for Indonesia to disinvite Putin was personally offensive to Jokowi. Morrison supposedly understood that a decision to expel or suspend any G20 member should come from the forum. Like US President Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Morrison was trying to test Indonesia’s integrity as the holder of this year’s G20 presidency.
The way Morrison mounted personal pressure on Jokowi to disinvite Putin reminded many Indonesians of the behavior of past Australian leaders, who often preached to Indonesia about democracy, human rights and supremacy of the law. Australian media were also aggressive toward Indonesia, as if they wanted “sinful Indonesia” to repent.
Morrison said he had told President Jokowi that he refused to see Putin in Bali. “The idea of sitting around a table with Vladimir Putin, who the United States is already in the position of calling out war crimes in Ukraine, for me is a step too far,” he said, as quoted by The Sydney Morning Herald in March.
“I would be disappointed if the G20 – and I’m sure President Widodo would feel the same – that the real purposes of it were not able to be achieved,” Morrison said. Such arrogance will never work for Indonesia because Australia is not so important that it has to follow its neighbor’s wishes.
Morrison also delivered a “slap in the face” to Jokowi for failing to inform the head of state of Indonesia, a close neighbor, of AUKUS’ establishment beforehand. Only after President Biden had announced the new strategic pact on Sept. 15, 2021 did Morrison tell Jokowi.
AUKUS could affect Indonesia’s national security because it allows Australia to buy nuclear-powered submarines from the US. International news agencies reported that the pact also covers cooperation in advanced cyber technology, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, undersea capabilities, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic electronic warfare and intelligence sharing.
Jokowi refused to receive Morrison when he wanted to stop over in Jakarta on his way home from his Sept. 21 summit with Biden and Johnson at the White House, and only accepted communication by phone from Morrison. What was more disappointing was the fact that just six days before Biden’s AUKUS announcement, Foreign Minister Retno L.P. Marsudi and Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto met with their respective Australian counterparts, Marine Payne and Peter Dutton, in Jakarta at the Indonesia-Australia Foreign and Defense Ministers two-plus-two meeting.
“The Australian ministers simply told their Indonesian hosts there would be an announcement on a security issue, but without any further explanations,” a senior Cabinet minister told me. Payne and Dutton telephoned Retno and Prabowo about AUKUS mere hours before Biden’s announcement.
Albanese has made an excellent start in forging good ties with Indonesia. Jokowi has an obligation to reciprocate by being more accommodating and understanding about Australia’s geopolitical interests, which will not necessarily be similar, if not contradictory, to Indonesia’s.
Indonesia and Australia will be always neighbors. They are both middle powers and G20 members. Minimizing distrust is key. Canberra’s secrecy over AUKUS hurt the mutual trust the two countries had built, although it must be acknowledged that Australia had a right not to tell Indonesia about it before it became a reality.