Visiting the neighbours

The paper says that with Australia’s strong support for the Indonesian chairmanship of Asean, the two nations may yet find themselves reaching new heights in their strategic relationship.


Courtesy call: On the sideline of his visit, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (left) receives then-Australian opposition leader Anthony Albanese at the Australian Parliament Building in Canberra on Feb. 10, 2020. (Courtesy of/Presidential Secretariat Press Bureau)

July 4, 2023

JAKARTA – Just moments before embarking on a flight to Sydney, Australia, on Monday to attend the Indonesia-Australia Annual Leaders’ Summit, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo boldly asserted that his two-day trip to the neighboring country was a strategic one.

Flanked by Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Pandjaitan and Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, both of whom recently met their Australian counterparts in preparation for this week’s meeting, it was made very clear that the President’s mission would mainly be economic.

Specifically, there has been a lot of talk around Indonesia’s keenness to partner up with Australia, so as to help realize its dream of becoming a regional battery production hub and, eventually, a center for electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing to rival other global supply chains.

Jakarta has been fairly straightforward with its proposition. Australia will have a new potentially huge market for its much-sought after lithium right next door, as well as the opportunity to invest in an economy already slated to become one of the largest in the world in a few decades.

In return, Indonesia will have the means and the market to develop a downstream critical minerals industry that will hopefully bring the country closer to enacting a sustainable energy transition, especially if the current Australian government’s standards remain intact and are adopted.

One might say this is one of the most lucrative deals that any two coalmining- and China-dependent countries could take in this day and age, especially if it brings them in line with global climate pledges and affords them greater autonomy and economic leverage vis-a-vis their partners.

Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has promised that the topic of regional security will be raised with the Indonesian leadership. As a nation pretty much geographically isolated from the rest of the world, Australia’s reliance on its Western allies and other long-distance partnerships can only do so much.

The onus is on Canberra to ensure it has an intimate and sustainable rapport with Jakarta, because in the case of nation-states, you just cannot choose your own neighbors. Australia’s security is very much reliant on its partnership with Indonesia, whether anyone likes it or not.

This fact is not lost on the Jokowi administration. This week’s trip marks the fifth meeting between the Indonesian and Australian leaders in just over a year. Even before Albanese was sworn in, President Jokowi had been largely successful in maintaining friendly ties with leaders of the previous government under the Liberal-National coalition, and in spite of the raft of revolving-door administrations.

Unlike the administration of then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which had frosty ties with Canberra on account of a huge spying scandal and Australia’s obsession with “turning back the boats”, Jokowi has managed to navigate the bilateral relationship into warmer waters. Not a bad feat, considering initial awkwardness over the execution of the so-called Bali Nine drug smugglers to disagreements on the occupation of Palestine.

Even with regard to Australia’s surprise nuclear submarine procurement deal with the United States and the United Kingdom, the annoyance this has caused in Jakarta has been tempered and set aside, in full knowledge that there is a wealth of opportunities to be seized if both sides can seriously enact the Indonesia-Australia comprehensive economic partnership agreement (CEPA) and establish closer cultural and people-to-people ties.

The truth of the matter is that the President arrives in Australia empowered by greater political authority and a newfound confidence on the international stage, having successfully presided over the Group of 20 largest economies at a time of great geopolitical turmoil. And with Australia’s strong support for the Indonesian chairmanship of ASEAN, the two nations may yet find themselves reaching new heights in their strategic relationship.

Whether as fellow commodity exporters and coalmining countries, development partners or “anchors of the Indo-Pacific”, it may well be time to show that any meeting of the two leaders can bring so much good to their countries, the region and beyond.

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