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How Australia Can Make The Most Of The Indonesian President's Visit

This engagement can create deep and sustainable relations between two countries.

23/02/2017 4:05 PM AEDT | Updated 25/02/2017 8:25 PM AEDT
ADEK BERRY via Getty Images
It's a great chance to improve ties.

Both Australia and Indonesia have frequently expressed their need to improve bilateral relations, but relations between two countries have remained stagnant in recent decades.

How can Australia make the most of Joko Widodo's visit? Former Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating successfully enhanced ties in the past century. Now, Widodo's administration gives the best chance for Australia to revive that legacy.

Australia must first learn about Joko Widodo's worldview and his foreign policy.

Under his predecessor, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Indonesia was projected as an emerging power. SBY's foreign policy perceived Indonesia as an active participant on the global arena, as a nation that could contribute solutions to global problems.

SBY also came up with foreign policy dictum of "one thousand friends and zero enemies", which guides Indonesia to maintain good relationships and avoid offending any country.

On the surface, the two countries have maintained amicable relations. Under SBY's administration, Indonesia hardly did a thing to strain diplomatic ties. However, these good relations seem superficial. Australia's espionage activities, which targeted SBY, the former First Lady and other top level officials, showed distrust and disrespect to Indonesia.

Joko Widodo's administration opens the opportunity for a deeper and more meaningful engagement between the two nations -- perhaps even more promising than during the Hawke and Keating eras.

Unlike his predecessor, Widodo departs from SBY's "one thousand friends and zero enemies" dictum.

Indeed, the President's boldness was evident in his refusal to grant clemency for two Australians involved in drug smuggling -- which strained the relations between two peoples for a certain period.

Widodo believes that foreign policy should be dedicated primarily to domestic interests. An experienced businessman and exporter, Widodo realises Indonesia's international stature can be enhanced by performing well domestically, instead of building an image as a middle power.

In light of this, he launched the maritime axis project, which aims to boost Indonesia's infrastructure. Widodo understands the urgency of improving Indonesia's poor infrastructure in developing the economy. (He once lamented the enormous cost to ship goods to nearby Papua, which is higher than the shipping cost to Europe.)

As a neighbouring country, which Prime Minister Turnbull considers as Australia's close partner, the picture of bilateral economic relations is alarming.

Infrastructure is undoubtedly a primary task in Widodo's agenda.

This year, China and Japan have agreed to participate in Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Rail and Jakarta Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Project with investment values of US$ 5.5 billion and US$ 1.7 billion respectively.

In contrast, Australia is not even listed in Indonesia's ten biggest foreign investors. Similarly, Indonesia is not even counted as one of Australia's top 10 trading partners.

As a neighbouring country, which Prime Minister Turnbull considers as Australia's close partner, the picture of bilateral economic relations is alarming.

According to the 2016 Global Investment Trends Monitor report by UNCTAD, Indonesia ranks ninth globally as a prospective host country for foreign direct investment. Malaysia, in tenth position, is the only other Southeast Asian nation to make the top 10.

This achievement provides an opportunity for Australia to deepen engagement in Indonesia.

Under Widodo's administration, Australia's connection with Indonesia depend on its political will to turn the wishy-washy diplomatic relations into substantial trade and investment cooperation.

This engagement can create deep and sustainable relations between two countries. Joko Widodo's administration opens the opportunity for a deeper and more meaningful engagement between the two nations -- perhaps even more promising than during the Hawke and Keating eras.

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