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SBY’s visit – the bigger picture

Indonesian coat of arms
At the second Indonesia-Australia Leaders’ Meeting in Darwin on 3 July, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono re-affirmed the two countries’ ‘comprehensive strategic partnership, based on a mutual commitment to each other’s progress, prosperity and security’. The
Joint Statement agreed by the two leaders highlights cooperation across a range of issues, including regional institutional architecture, trade, defence and maritime cooperation, policing, development assistance, and people-to-people links.

Despite the language of ‘partnership’, much of the public commentary in Australia concerning Indonesia remains focused on specific irritants (people smuggling, live cattle, consular cases) or about how to best ‘manage’ the day-to-day relationship. Both sides of politics remain keen to demonstrate their respective Indonesia credentials; the Government says the relationship ‘has never been stronger’, while the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, has promised a ‘cultural shift’ in Australia’s approach ‘because in some respects Indonesia is our most important relationship’.

This discussion, however, often omits the important changes taking place within Indonesia itself. In this environment, it is worth stepping back to reflect on some of the broader aspects of Indonesia’s polity, economy and society. At a recent address to an Asialink forum, Australia’s current Ambassador to Indonesia, Mr Greg Moriarty, highlighted ‘ten things worth knowing about Indonesia’:

1. Indonesia does not owe the International Monetary Fund (IMF) anything

2. Indonesia’s own budget for national development and infrastructure is 200 times the value of Australia’s bilateral development assistance (estimated at $510 million in 2012–13)

3. Foreign Direct Investment in Indonesia grew by 30 per cent to reach US$5.6 billion in the first three months of 2012

4. Indonesia’s economy was one of only three Asian economies that grew above 6 per cent in 2011

5. Indonesia is on track to achieve universal primary education by 2015

6. dozens of political parties are flourishing in a robust democratic contest and the 2014 Presidential elections are ‘wide open’

7. Indonesia’s middle class is larger than Australia’s entire population

8. Indonesia is the world’s third largest user of Facebook and the world’s fourth largest ‘Twitter-sphere’

9. by 2025, Indonesia will have more young people as a proportion of its workforce than most other Asian countries

10. one of Indonesia’s top-rating television programs is Junior Masterchef Australia

According to Hugh White at the Lowy Institute, the key implication of these kinds of changes is that we need to start rethinking policy settings in order to adjust to an Indonesia that will very likely, over the next few decades, become richer and stronger than Australia.

Masterchef aside, Ambassador Moriarty’s point about the national elections is arguably the most important in terms of the future of Australia-Indonesia relations over the medium-term. The leaders of both countries will face the polls over the next two years. In 2014, SBY will exit and a new, potentially unfamiliar, President will be elected. Speculation about potential candidates and the results of early polling are now regular talking points in Indonesia’s media. Indeed, one of the most prominent candidates, Aburizal Bakrie, recently visited Australia.

Whoever wins the next Australian federal election will, in 2015, be meeting with a new Indonesian leader; one whose priorities and preferences will, in this era of ‘partnership’, have as much bearing on the tone and substance of relations as our own. Understanding the long-term changes taking place within Indonesian society, and their implications, will offer the best prospect for us to anticipate what these priorities might be and what they might entail for the bilateral relationship in the ‘Asian Century’. What is assured is that election watching will become a major preoccupation for both countries over the next couple of years.