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PM’s visit just one small part of Australia-Indonesia relations

The visit to Indonesia by the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, within days of taking office, has been widely hailed as a success, with the signing of an effective free trade agreement and a further tilt towards a closer strategic relationship. The five point agreement visit was said to ‘add ballast’ to the bilateral relationship, reprising a goal announced by then Foreign Minister Gareth Evans some 30 years ago.

The ‘ballast’ – trade – is intended to keep bilateral relations steady in the event of running into rough diplomatic weather. Australia and Indonesia have had an historically uneasy relationship, which at times has bordered on hostile.

Part of the success of the visit is that the Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) is nothing if not affable. PM Morrison went through the steps without doing or saying anything awkward (although his brief speech in Indonesian was a shocker of abject mispronunciation).

It helped, of course, that the free trade agreement was the product of several years of careful diplomatic work. Leadership meetings are conventionally the capping of a great deal of diplomatic work, not working through the detail itself.

Indonesia is Australia’s 13th largest trading partner, a position it has held, give or take a couple of places, for decades. It is possible that Australian exports to Indonesia will increase, although there is little economic complimentarity between the two countries.

The ‘strategic’ element of the ‘comprehensive and strategic partnership’, therefore, looks as though it might be the more substantial outcome of the meeting. The difficulty with that is, the public document is long on principles of cooperation and stability, but short on detail.

Apart from continuing support for Indonesia’s counter-terrorism capacity and cooperation over people smuggling, what some senior Australian defence officials want is a formal strategic alliance with Indonesia. They see Indonesia’s exposure to regional maritime threats as aligning with Australia’s own strategic concerns – agreed support for a ‘rules based order’, which is code for limitations on China’s territorial ambitions.

However, the Indonesian defence establishment has been less enthusiastic about a more formal strategic relationship. Australian and Indonesia militaries do train together, but there are many senior Indonesian officers who still remember with bitterness Australia’s leading role in East Timor becoming an independent state.

At least as importantly, President Jokowi faces the polls in 2019 and, while reasonably well placed to win a second term in office, will likely face a formidable challenge from former Suharto clan member and ex-military hard man, Prabowo Subianto.

Prabowo could be expected to be very much more a more authoritarian leader than Jokowi has been, or Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was for the decade before him. This could then raise tensions between Australia and Indonesia, over Australian concerns at what might be a turn back towards ‘strong man’ rule. Even where such concern is not official, history is replete with illustrations of where unofficial Australian protest was at the core of volatile relations.

So, a constructive visit by MP Morrison is to be welcomed, as was his warm reception by President Jokowi. But it would be short-sighted to believe other than Australia’s relationship with Indonesia will require continuous reinforcement if it is to not repeat some of the problems of the past.