Australia and Indonesia: Business as Usual?

The freeze that followed the Bali 9 executions appears to be thawing.

Australia and Indonesia: Business as Usual?
Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website

Relations with Indonesia are once again good, according to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop who was speaking at the ASEAN talks in Malaysia, where she met with her Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi for the first time since the Bali Nine executions.

Diplomatic ties have resumed, after post-execution statements that things could not be business as usual. Did anyone think that would last? The phone tapping scandal of 2013 (under the previous Labor government Australia had been tapping the phones of varied Indonesian politicians, including one attempt on then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s phone) cooled ties on the Indonesian side, but things thawed, as they tend to. Now Bishop is speaking not only of the two nations’ enduring relations but of her own close relationship with Marsudi. Quoted by Fairfax, Bishop said as much, “Our relationship has always been strong. We have faced challenges from time to time.”

A transcript of a media doorstep interview with the minister is interesting: after talking about peace, stability and security in the region, the importance of ASEAN to Australia, issues in the South China Sea and its importance for Australia and Australia’s trade, MH17, and her meetings with many of her counterparts, the first three questions were on the Australia-Indonesia relationship and Australia’s stance on the death penalty, then on to cooperation with Indonesia on combatting people smuggling. Despite a Lowy Institute poll finding that only one third of Australians believe Indonesia is a democracy, there is plenty of interest in the relationship. (Incidentally, Bishop did not specifically mention Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the two Australians executed by Indonesia in April.)

Bishop reiterated much government policy: Cooperation is vital, especially on people smuggling and terrorism and extremism. Also, two way trade is important and Indonesia a very large, increasingly middle class and nearby market. “I often use the statistic that we have a $20 billion two way trade relationship with New Zealand, a country of 4 million people, yet a $15 billion two way trade relationship with a country of 245 million people,” she said.

Is this it? When it comes to trade Australia has latterly been talking up its ChAFTA. The Indonesian market is one that Australian businesses do look to and invest in, but the government has seemingly placed the economic side of the relationship on a second tier when it talks up its Asian Century. Indonesia is primarily seen as important strategically, and that involves diplomacy. But look past the headlines there remains some quieter cooperation and involvement, from MIKTA to Indonesia’s role in ASEAN (important for Australia), and cooperation on people smuggling and now, as Bishop says, working on combatting violent extremism. Some of these issues, like people smuggling, are part of everyday Australia’s understanding of the Indonesia relationship, while others, such as cooperation on maritime issues and the Law of the Sea, are not. But the point is that it will likely always be some form of business as usual, even if the relationship falters through a bad quarter or two.