Jakarta key to Coalition hopes

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Tony Abbott has backed away from his pledge to visit Indonesia in his first week in office, but the promise stands to make it his first overseas destination as prime minister.

The APEC leaders meeting will be held in Nusa Dua, Bali, in early October, so if he also travels to Jakarta before that, he will be going twice to the country in his first month in office.

Without Abbott having lifted a finger, though, economic circumstances have done him a favour. In response to a current account scare and the plunge of the rupiah, Indonesia’s new finance manager has removed the quota on beef imports in the name of economic stimulus.

The Australian ban on live exports in 2011, followed by the nationalistic assertion in Indonesia that it could be self-sufficient in beef by 2014, had conspired to both damage the Northern Territory cattle industry and send Indonesian beef prices soaring. Abbott used it ruthlessly to hurt Labor.

Indonesia’s abandonment of that policy during the election campaign has cleared one issue off the bilateral table at least, but Abbott cannot expect the rest of his demands of Indonesia to be settled so easily.

On asylum seekers, particularly, he has raised hackles. His boat-buying policy has been labelled “crazy”, with senior parliamentarian Mahfudz Siddiq saying this week that Abbott “doesn’t understand diplomacy or bilateral co-operation”. His “turn back the boats” policy is also unpopular.

This is a question of sovereignty and national pride on both sides of the ocean. When Australia turns the first boat around under Operation Sovereign Borders, and it becomes the responsibility of Indonesia’s anaemic search and rescue capability, or limps back to an already bursting immigration detention system, expect Indonesia to object loudly about Australian chauvinism.

At Abbott’s back, though, are the expectations he himself has raised.

Former Liberal foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer, for example, has argued that Australia should earn respect in Jakarta by muscling up.

Abbott, known in Indonesia as Howard’s political offspring, will turn up in Indonesia promising, for the sake of domestic politics, a huge cut to foreign aid – $4.5 billion out over the next four years. The fact that this is likely to hit Indonesia hardest (it is our biggest aid recipient) has already been noted in Jakarta.

A wildcard in the diplomatic mix is one tiny boat with six people aboard. The Pog, the last remaining vessel of the so-called Freedom Flotilla, set off on Monday morning from far north Queensland on the way to West Papua. The Pog carries Amos Wanggai, one of the indigenous Papuan men who disturbed relations between Howard and Indonesia in 2006 by sailing in the opposite direction and successfully seeking asylum in Australia.

West Papua is the poison apple in the bilateral relationship. After that refugee incident, Howard tried to find an antidote with the Lombok treaty of 2006, which guarantees Australian support for Indonesian control over Papua. However, many Indonesians simply do not believe the words, and think Australia still agitates for the province’s independence, just as we did East Timor’s.

The landing of the Pog, its interception by the Indonesian military, and the possible imprisonment of its sailors may pose an early challenge for Abbott and his foreign minister Julie Bishop.

Indonesia’s economy is growing fast. Its military is gearing up. It is flexing its diplomatic muscles as the largest ASEAN economy. It is becoming more assertive about its place in the world.

It is also at the end of an electoral cycle. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s term ends next year and he already looks like yesterday’s man. His replacement may well not be as sympathetic or measured towards Australia’s needs, and the relationship remains full of potential misunderstandings on both sides.

Abbott can no longer pretend that his boats policy is unpopular in Indonesia because Labor spoilt the relationship. He must take responsibility for his own policies and set his own tone with an increasingly confident Indonesia, while projecting an image that allows him to work with whoever replaces SBY.

It’s not an easy task, and it begins soon.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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