Was Tony Abbott’s Jakarta trip a success? We’ll see

Tony Abbott’s first foreign trip to Indonesia yielded some return, but time will tell if his ‘Jakarta focus’ is a success. EPA/Adi Weda

Evaluating the success of Tony Abbott’s first prime ministerial visit to Indonesia depends, of course, on what you saw as its objectives. Those with high hopes – that it would mark a breakthrough in discussions on asylum seeker policies, for instance – were always going to be disappointed. Meetings like these almost never produce big-ticket outcomes.

But those with more modest expectations might well feel their hopes were met.

Perhaps the first positive is the most simple one: that the visit took place, and was so early in Abbott’s prime ministership. This confirms what Abbott has been saying for some time: that he gives very high priority to the relationship with Indonesia.

Indonesians will be well pleased with his action. Indonesia is very much a “pressing the flesh” society. You cannot foster or sustain relationships via email or faxes or even Skype: you have to be there, in person, to get business done. But perhaps more important than the first visit is the second one. And the third one. And so on.

The second positive is in the composition of Abbott’s team, both those who joined him and those who did not. The bulk of the team members were businesspeople, consistent with Abbott’s assertion that he wanted to see greater trade and investment action between Indonesia and Australia. There is certainly opportunity for this to happen, though the barriers to closer economic relations (both in Australia and Indonesia) should not be under-estimated.

Perhaps unwittingly, Abbott expressed one of those problems when he spoke at a business breakfast on Tuesday. He said:

From Australia’s perspective there should be an urgency - a real urgency - to building this relationship while there’s still so much that Australia has to give and that Indonesia is keen to receive.

Unfortunately, this suggests a one-way flow of goods and services from Australia to Indonesia. That’s not something which Indonesian exporters will have wanted to hear. The statement also seems to imply that trade is based on generosity: Australia gives, Indonesia receives. Again, this is not the best way to express things. Mindsets need to shift, away from the helping hand paradigm to one where normal commercial interests prevail.

It was important, too, to note who was not on Abbott’s team: the new Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison. No doubt he will be in Jakarta soon, but out of the heads of government spotlight. His absence was an important symbolic recognition of the need to try to divert attention from the asylum seeker issue.

Another positive is the announcement of the establishment of the Australian Centre for Indonesian Studies, to be housed at Monash University, with nodes at the ANU, Melbourne University and the CSIRO. The centre will receive A$15 million over the next four years. Abbott said the centre’s mandate:

…will be to strengthen and deepen Australia-Indonesia business, cultural, educational, research and community links.

There is no doubt that links do indeed need to be strengthened and deepened, as previously argued. Abbott may well believe the relationship with Indonesia to be one of Australia’s highest priorities, but the problem is that few Australians agree with him.

Quite what impact the centre will have on this issue remains to be seen, and academics working in other Australian universities where the study of Indonesia has been squeezed dry over the past decade or so might be left wondering why this assistance hadn’t come to them previously.

Abbott also acknowledged that “mistakes” had been made by Australia in the past in its relations with Indonesia. Australia-watchers in Indonesia, though, will have noted that the mistakes Abbott referred to (such as a ban on live cattle exports) were made by ALP governments, not by the Coalition.

But what of the elephant in the room: the issue of asylum seekers? Amongst the usual platitudes a couple of points might prove to be significant, all of which seem to suggest that there is still a long way to go to resolve the differences between the two countries.

In the Monday evening press conference, Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) stressed the need to find bilateral solutions to the asylum seeker issue. The issue was not just a problem for Australia, he noted: it was a problem for Indonesia as well. Indonesia and Australia both bore the burden of the issue, SBY said, and thus both countries had a vested interest in its resolution.

This position is of course consistent with what Indonesians have been saying for some time: that they will not accept any unilateral approach taken by Australia.

For his part, Abbott reiterated that Australia respected Indonesia’s national sovereignty. This, too, is consistent with the position he has taken all along. In public at least, it was not surprising that he did not address the concerns which Indonesians have about aspects of his policies which they see as undermining their sovereignty.

As for moving forward, much of the detail will be left to further discussions between the coordinating security minister of Indonesia and Scott Morrison.

Abbott does not seem to have gone very far in persuading Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa that progress had been made, though. Asked about his statements, Natalegawa said:

We’ll have to wait and see, don’t we. What am I to say? I mean, we’ll see.

Indeed we will.