Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his Foreign Minister Penny Wong will visit Indonesia on Sunday with the aim of deepening relations with our giant neighbour and our region.
Of course it’s primarily about business and trade opportunities, but in today’s post-COVID world there is a lot more that demands closer links with Indonesia, a nation of 275 million people whose growth will skyrocket to it becoming the world’s 4th largest economy by 2045.
Indonesia has traditionally looked north for its partnerships and investment opportunities but COVID-19 and climate change means Australia needs to view Indonesia in a new light as we seek to grow and diversify our trade links beyond the over-reliance on China, and how Indonesia must now view Australia as it seeks new digital innovation, food, mining technology and clean-green energy partnerships.
In 2020, Australia and Indonesia concluded a ground-breaking trade deal called the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement or IA-CEPA, and as the Albanese Government settles into power, and the COVID restrictions ease, both government and business will now want to see IA CEPA reinvigorated and deliver the vast opportunities available.
The big challenge still lies however, with (according to the Lowy Institute) some 64 per cent of Australians, including business people, still holding some degree of mistrust and misunderstanding of Indonesians; an issue that must be addressed if we really want to build business and trade links along with meeting our regional security needs.
Ironically, the bi-lateral relationship has been left in reasonable shape by the outgoing Morrison government, including with defence, policing, business-to-business and cultural relations.
But whilst the current relationship is quite broad, it lacks any real depth with the population of both countries knowing very little about each other and in many respects remaining as the “strangers next door”.
As Mr Albanese and Senator Wong embark on what will be one of the most important visits to Jakarta for many years, we should view Indonesia in a fresh light and this needs to be reciprocated.
Some trade experts argue that we don’t necessarily need to build closer people links anyway as a transactional relationship can work just as well. WA in particular has enjoyed a strong yet an often transactional relationship with China whereby both countries generally sell and buy “stuff” from each other.
But Indonesia is not China and as such a “we sell-they buy” approach will not work, with a deeper more trusting relationship needed that could see Australian mining, energy technologies and rare earths for example being supplied to Indonesia along with added-value products and food being exported through Indonesian partners to many third-party countries around the world.
To realise these opportunities however, we will need to understand each other far better, including the building of trust and knowledge about our respective cultures.
Indonesia is also now becoming an important strategic partner given China’s expansion in our region. A strong, deep and broadly based relationship therefore is critical not only for business and trade, but for our mutual security.
Our close defence-sharing arrangements should be expanded to allow for the exchange of naval officers on assignments, again to build trust and closer relations.
At a people-to-people level, Australia could break the barriers quickly by removing the requirement for all Indonesian tourists to apply for a visa prior to coming here on vacation.
Currently, each family member must pay $140 just to apply for the visa that also requires each person to complete a 15-page questionnaire where even children need to answer questions such as, “Have you been involved in acts of genocide?” and “Have you been involved in terrorism or human trafficking activities?”
Only then can the application be submitted, followed by a wait of anywhere between 14 days and three months for either the approval or refusal, in which case the full amount paid is forfeited.
Indonesians currently enjoy 70 visa-free destinations where they can travel, resulting in the majority of Indonesia’s young and mobile generation placing Australia at the bottom of their holiday destination list.
These people-to-people links should also include work opportunities for Indonesians in aged care, child care and nursing where qualified and caring young people can gain valuable experience here whilst helping us in sectors that are desperately in need of quality staff.
Likewise, Mr Albanese can expand the successful student study scheme that allows Australian students to live in Indonesia to study the Indonesian language at universities whilst encouraging Indonesian students to live and study here.
And finally, building on what we call “soft diplomacy” such as soccer where every week over 54 million football-mad Indonesians watch their respective teams play on TV alone.
With Sam Kerr along with a number of Australian players being household names in Indonesia, and a huge number of senior business people with strong links to the various clubs, soft diplomacy has been significantly undervalued.
As Mr Albanese and Senator Wong embark on what will be one of the most important visits to Jakarta for many years, we should view Indonesia in a fresh light and this needs to be reciprocated, as both nations have a huge opportunity to build capacity and depth in this vital relationship; our mutual economic growth, diversification and national security demand it.
Ross B. Taylor is the president of the Perth-based Indonesia Institute Inc. and a former WA commissioner to Indonesia.