Behind the genuinely smiling face will be thoughts that are probably going to be about issues other than those concerning Australia, including the diplomatic stoush with Singapore over the shocking haze that now covers the island state due to ‘man-made’ Indonesian forest fires in Sumatra, and the impact on Indonesia’s 95 million citizens who live on $2.00 per day, following his government’s decision to reign-in the unsustainable US$20 billion annual fuel subsidy bill by increasing prices by 40%.
The great challenge therefore, for Ms Gillard will be to convince Indonesia, and a president in his final term, that the asylum seeker issue is critical to both countries. As one senior Indonesian official recently told me:
“Indonesia is as underwhelmed about the asylum seeker crisis as Australia is overwhelmed by it.”
It was an interesting observation as generally Australia does spend a lot of time worrying and focusing on ‘Indonesian issues’ that are either political irritants (such as asylum seekers and drug smugglers) or Bali-holidays gone wrong. The trouble with these issues is that they are simply not a priority for most Indonesians.
What does interest the Indonesian government, apart from the fuel and forest fires issues, is finding jobs for the millions of young people now moving through their education system; health reforms and ensuring Indonesia’s economic ‘miracle’ not only continues, but matures into a strong and sustainable growth cycle.
Another major focus within Indonesia - and an issue that continually escapes the minds of most Australians – is the need to ensure that Indonesia remains a strong and stable democracy despite the rise of fundamentalist and religious violence in a number of provinces.
Of course Indonesia is willing to co-operate with Australia in matters such as asylum seekers - which has now become a lucrative ‘industry’ within Indonesia - but the reality is that Indonesia has its own problems with asylum seekers and refugees who can easily enter this huge archipelago via any one of thousands of entry points. Australia generally has only one.
We should not forget that the only reason Indonesia hosts so many asylum seekers is that they are using Indonesia as an entry point to their ultimate-and easy-target: Australia.
Meanwhile, if the PM really wants to engage with Indonesians’ and to find an issue that seriously ‘interests’ them, look no further than West Papua. And for SBY’s government the real regional issue of serious concern to his country is the ‘Free Papua Movement’ – an organisation that is supported by a number of Australians.
Writing in Asialink, presidential advisor Dewi Fortuna Anwar wrote that, “...There is still a strong belief in some Indonesian circles that the separation of East Timor from Indonesia resulted ...from pressure from Australia”.
It is of little surprise therefore, that any comments about – or demonstrations in support of – West Papua here in Australia are watched very closely by Indonesia. Ms Gillard understands clearly that the West Papua independence issue would have the potential to severely strain relations with Australia at a time when Indonesia will be electing a new – and perhaps not quite so friendly – president in 2014.
At a business level we continue to enjoy close and harmonious relations between both countries. But it is not enough. Indonesian business people have long since developed extensive relations to its north. Singapore, Japan, Korea and now China have huge investments in Indonesia and two-way trade is growing rapidly.
Australia has been understandably obsessed by the China story and as a consequence we have missed many opportunities to build closer and more extensive business, political and cultural ties with Indonesia.
Ironically, as commentators in Australia express concern as to how we have ‘neglected’ Indonesia, it is actually hard to find anyone in Indonesia who feels that they have been ‘neglected’ by Australia. Not because they are being understanding and sympathetic to our self-indulgent view of the bi-lateral relationship, but rather Indonesia has long since moved on and developed stronger and more extensive ties to its north.
This may be why Indonesia acted with extreme caution when we announced the placement of US troops into Darwin. Indonesia has built strong ties with China and it wishes to maintain these links without being forced to choose between two great powers, China and the USA.
At a ministerial level Australia and Indonesia enjoy warm and cordial relations. The challenge is to ensure these good relations - particularly at the leadership level - are maintained and developed in the post SBY era as from 2014.
Part of that process needs to be a much stronger and deeper engagement with Indonesia - for our own sake. A good starting point would be for us to quickly address the very disturbing decline in Indonesian language studies here in Australia that has seen student numbers fall by almost 40% in recent years.
We also need to make it easier for young Indonesians to undertake working holidays here, and whilst increasing the intake of young travellers from one hundred to one thousand a year is a good start, the process remains very complex and simply too hard for many Indonesians.
When Australia finds itself hosting more work & holiday young people from Bangladesh than Indonesia, we really need to be asking why?
We also need to admit that the handling of the cattle export issue to Indonesia in 2010 was an unmitigated disaster that has overshadowed the enormous opportunities open to Australia to partnership with Indonesia in building our agriculture industries using Indonesia’s fertile land, abundant labour and location combined with our branding, technology, science and farm management skills to create huge third-party exports to feed the rest of Asia.
Meanwhile, Australia is right in focusing and worrying about ‘things Indonesian’, but we should understand that the focus needs to be on matters that are important, not just to Australia, but also to Indonesia in terms of broadening and deepening of the bi-lateral relationship.
Ross Taylor is the chairman of the WA-based Indonesia Institute (Inc).