Labour win ushers fresh start for Indonesia-Australia ties

Australian opposition leader Anthony Albanese gestures as he walks off the stage during a reception after winning the 2022 general election in Sydney on May 21, 2022. - AFP

JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network): Indonesia has pinned its hopes on more policy alignment with the new Australian government, after Labour Party leader Anthony Albanese was sworn into the premiership on the promise of a progressive climate policy and of putting immediate neighbours at the heart of its foreign policy.

Over the last decade or so, Jakarta has had a hot-and-cold relationship with Canberra that has fluctuated from extremely tense to practically cordial, partly due to the “revolving-door” of premierships that underscored the polarising character of Australian politics.

Most recently, the personal relationship between the leaderships of both countries has been put to the test by Australia’s increasing reliance on Western allies to help buffer it against Chinese influence, despite making good on a landmark free trade agreement that opens market access for Indonesia and Australia.

Canberra’s actions resulted in the AUKUS security pact with the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as increased activity in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a foreign policy forum grouping Australia with the US, India and Japan. Such moves have raised concerns in Beijing and even Jakarta.

Albanese immediately took off on Monday (May 23) on his maiden overseas trip as premier to join a meeting of the Quad in Japan that was arranged prior to his election victory. However, he had promised on the campaign trail that he would pick up former premier Paul Keating’s policy of putting Indonesia at the very top of Australia’s diplomatic priorities.

Historically, Labour has had greater regard for Indonesia, most notably under Keating’s leadership throughout the 1990s, said international relations expert from Gadjah Mada University, Dafri Agussalim.

This relationship started during the Cold War era, when Keating became hesitant to work with Western powers and turned his head “east” to Indonesia. But while Indonesian officials might seem enthusiastic about the potential economic boons to be enjoyed by both countries, Dafri said that the Albanese administration would most likely focus on matters typically seconded after economy-related discussions.

“The Labour Party is not too focused on economic matters. They are more concerned about newer issues, such as climate change and human rights. Indonesia must anticipate discussing these newer concerns with Australia and use its smart power in diplomacy,” Dafri told The Jakarta Post on Monday.

Fitriani, international politics researcher from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), echoed this sentiment, saying Indonesia should expect increasing pressure from Australia with regard to “nontraditional” issues like environmental policy, especially considering the soaring prominence of the Australian Green Party.

“The Greens are gaining prestige, especially in Brisbane and Queensland. Of course, they are especially concerned with environmental issues. Indonesia has fallen short in its capacity to deal with climate concerns, like the prevalence of forest fires and greenhouse gas emissions. This could potentially summon some criticism from the new government,” Fitriani told the Post on Monday.

Both Dafri and Fitri also agreed that human rights issues in Papua will most likely be brought to attention under the Labour government.

Dafri said it is in Indonesia’s best interest to appease Australia in this matter, as Canberra’s support will quell loud protests coming from Pacific island nations.

Newly appointed Foreign Minister Penny Wong issued her first policy video on Instagram on Monday, announcing a First Nations foreign policy that “strengthens connections between First Nations People and the Blue Pacific”.

On top of climate and human rights issues, Fitri said that both countries’ mutual concern over Chinese dominance will likely trump any differences. Unsettling feelings about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s international strategies is a bipartisan issue, the researcher said.

“We might see more intensive bilateral meetings between the two countries to counter China. Australia may protest the way Indonesia is handling some issues, but at the same time, it needs its neighbour’s cooperation now more than ever. It is in their best interest to ensure we become a neutral buffer,” said Fitri.

As a US ally, Australia had placed itself squarely in Washington’s camp as it relates to regional security.

Meanwhile, Jakarta has opted for a more inclusive regional order, reflected in the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Beyond that, the two countries have a long history of collaborating on a number of strategic issues.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has described Indonesia as “one of Australia’s most important bilateral relationships”, while the Indonesian side describes its Australian link as becoming “increasingly strong and comprehensive within the past decade”.

Just hours after Albanese was sworn into office, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo tweeted his congratulations to the 59-year-old politician, emphasising his aspiration for sturdier bilateral relations.

“Congratulations Anthony Albanese @AlboMP on your election as Prime Minister of Australia! Looking forward to working closely with you in advancing our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, including concrete implementation of IA-CEPA,” wrote Jokowi.

The Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) is an economic agreement signed in mid-2020 aimed at strengthening value chains between Australian and Indonesian businesses.

Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi also chimed in, offering cordial regards to her newest Australian counterpart, Wong. The Malaysia-born senator is the first Asian-born politician to have ever held the cabinet position.

“Warm congratulations to new Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Looking forward to continue advancing a strong Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Thank you to my dear friend and colleague Marise Payne for the friendship and cooperation,” Retno tweeted.

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Indonesia , Australia , Albanese , cooperation , Labour


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