When Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) leaves office later this month, either Prabowo Subianto or Joko Widodo will enter as Indonesia’s new President. Previously, I discussed what this would mean for Indonesians, but not yet have I mentioned what it may mean for Australia.
When SBY entered office in 2004, as Indonesia’s first-democratic President elect, it began a decade of amicable relations between Australia and Indonesia. Not without some controversy – the (ongoing) issue of asylum seekers, and the more recent the phone tapping scandal – the relationship remained more or less stable. However, after two terms in office SBY’s time is up.
So, what happens now? What do the candidate’s for Indonesia’s top job think about the Aus-Indo relationship? At the recent Presidential debate Jokowi, much to the bemusement of Australian politicians, addressed the issue directly. “What’s wrong with the Indonesia-Australia relationship, that often it’s up and down, hot and cold?” stated Widodo. Prabowo, too, weighed in on the discussion, “Honestly, I think the problem is Australia’s, not ours,” adding [the Australian government] “has some kind of suspicion or phobia towards Indonesia.”
The fact that both Presidential candidates are mentioning the Aus-Indo relationship (traditionally a non-issue in what is largely a domestic-only campaign) is a clear sign that tensions are high. When either Jokowi or Prabowo assume leadership later this month, the Australian government will no longer enjoy Jakarta’s tacit support.
However, the relationship is far from over. All Australia need do is engage directly and immediately with Indonesia’s new President. Both parties can collectively gain from a “fresh start,” and it would be diplomatic folly for Australia to not act upon this opportunity. The issue as it stands is no longer with Jakarta, but rather in the out-dated approach to foreign policy exhibited by the current Australian government.