Leftist Australian PM Visits Indonesia to Strengthen Anti-China Ties

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 05: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaks to media during a city visit on June 5, 2022 in Perth, Australia. Albanese is travelling to Indonesia on Sunday to meet with President Joko Widodo on his first international visit as leader of Australia. (Photo by Matt Jelonek/Getty …
Matt Jelonek/Getty Images

Australia’s new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese paid a visit to Indonesia on Monday, barely two weeks after his election.

Albanese met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo to highlight the importance Australia places on the bilateral relationship and counter China’s growing regional influence.

“We share a fundamental interest in promoting a more prosperous, stable and secure region, where sovereignty is respected. Australia’s partnership with Indonesia has never been more consequential to this objective,” said Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who joined Albanese on the trip.

East Asia and Pacific Director Santo Darmosumarto of the Indonesian Foreign Ministry told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that Albanese and “Jokowi,” as the Indonesian president is known, would work on strengthening their “comprehensive strategic partnership” — and smooth out some Indonesian anxiety about the new AUKUS regional security alliance between the U.S., U.K., and Australia.

Santo said Indonesia was anxious that AUKUS would give Australia a fleet of nuclear submarines, potentially triggering an arms race with China.

“It is hoped that the PM will explain how AUKUS does not need to be a concern for Indonesia and the region,” agreed University of Indonesia law professor Hikmanhanto Juwana.

On the other hand, Australia is unhappy that Indonesia has refused to disinvite Russia from the G20 summit, to be held in Bali this November. Analysts said it was highly unlikely Australia would boycott the G20 due to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s presence since that would be seen as a tremendous insult to Indonesia and Jokowi.

“Jokowi will insist on Albanese’s attendance regardless of Putin’s presence and his offenses against international law that Indonesia claims to hold dear,” said Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) Indonesia chief David Engel.

Jokowi met Albanese outside the Bogor Presidential Palace on Monday to take him for a bicycle tour of the palace gardens, a welcome Albanese described as an honor and a privilege:

Jokowi gave Albanese his bamboo bicycle as a gift after the ride, which struck the UK Guardian as an “apt realpolitik metaphor” for two countries trying to keep their balance as they wobble at different paces through the headwinds of China’s increasingly aggressive regional policy:

As Albanese and Jokowi gripped and grinned, a palpable threat hangs over our shared region, and in our age of escalating strategic competition, shuttle diplomacy is accelerating. In the last 24 hours, Albanese had to speak to Timor-Leste after our near neighbor became the latest regional country to sign a batch of new agreements with China during the regime’s recent hearts and minds tour of the Indo-Pacific. Things are moving so rapidly he had to have that conversation in-flight.

It is also unclear whether or not the new foreign minister, Penny Wong, has had time to unpack the bag she packed immediately after becoming foreign minister.

Jakarta is Wong’s fourth international trip in two weeks – projecting Australia’s intention to match China for visibility in the region – an important structural shift after the change of government in Canberra. Wong met her Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, shortly after her arrival in Jakarta on Sunday night.

The most highly-publicized purpose of Albanese’s trip to Jakarta was revitalizing trade between Australia and Indonesia, which Albanese noted is “on track to become one of the world’s five largest economies.”

The two countries ratified a free trade deal in 2020 called the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, but full implementation was delayed by the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. 

The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) reported one of Albanese’s first steps toward jump-starting the bilateral economic relationship was a pledge to make Australia “more welcoming” to Indonesian business travelers and students by clearing up an “extraordinary backlog” of visa applications.

“If a business leader who wants to come and engage with Australia has more difficulty getting into Australia than a near neighbor, then we’re at a competitive disadvantage. That’s something that we’re really suffering from across the board,” Albanese said.

“The Australian prime minister has made deeper engagement with south-east Asia a priority for his new government and promised a roving regional envoy to south-east Asia, a new south-east Asia office within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, a $200 million climate and infrastructure fund with Indonesia and an extra $470 million in aid for the regions,” the SMH noted.

Political research chief Athiqah Nur Alami of the Indonesian National Research and Innovation agency told Al Jazeera News that Australia’s Labor governments usually seek deeper relationships with Indonesian than conservative presidents like the recently departed Scott Morrison.

“The Indonesia and Australia relationship has blown hot and cold over the years. It has been like a rollercoaster, sometimes you scream and sometimes you laugh,” Alami said.

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