Last Sunday (6 June 2022), the newly elected Prime Minister (PM) of Australia, Anthony Albanese, began his visit to Indonesia. He met with President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) in Jakarta, and strengthening relations between the two neighbouring countries is on top of the agenda. PM Albanese's Indonesian trip is one of his first overseas visits since he won last month's Australian federal election on the 21st of May.
The first visit of PM Albanese to Indonesia is important both symbolically and with concrete implications. It also opens up for opportunities to further improve and deepen relations between the two Pacific neighbours. It is noteworthy that PM Albanese’s trip to Indonesia strategically goes beyond just Jakarta.
It is also important to mention that the potential strengthening of Australia-Indonesia relations is influenced by the fact that PM Albanese and his cabinet members are among the most diverse in Australian history.
This diversity, which is more clearly representative of Australia's people, can be seen in the profiles of its cabinet members among other things. There are 10 women, 2 Muslims and 1 indigenous Australian. This is a new breakthrough in the country. Not only progressive in the diversity of its membership, PM Albanese's cabinet is also progressive with their commitment to focus more on climate change, gender equality and fairer treatment of Indigenous Australians (Aborigine and Torress Strait Islanders).
But for Indonesia, perhaps the most important point of the inauguration of PM Albanese is his strong commitment to strengthening Australia's relations with countries in the Asia-Pacific region compared to the previous government, namely when Australia was under Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the Liberal Party. PMs from the Liberal Party tend to be more oriented and prioritise relations with Australia's traditional allies in North America and Europe.
Indeed, Australia's position is very unique because it is part of the 'Anglosphere' or English-speaking countries with the United States (US) and the United Kingdom, but unlike them, is much closer geographically to Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Australia (and New Zealand) can be called the “Western in the East”. But aside from that, Australia cannot ignore its neighbours in Southeast Asia, the Pacific as well as the economic, political and military developments in the region, and it seems PM Albanese is well aware of this fact.
It should also be stated that before visiting Indonesia, PM Albanese's first foreign visit was to Japan to meet with the leaders of the QUAD member countries (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), namely US President Joe Biden, Indian PM Narendra Modi and Japanese PM Kishida Fumio.
At the same time, Australia's new Foreign Minister Penny Wong (a female member of PM Albanese cabinet and of Asian descent) also visited various Asia-Pacific countries including Fiji, Soma and Tonga where she spoke with the Pacific Islands Forum.
Foreign Minister Wong visited these Pacific Island countries, of course, mainly in response to the diplomatic campaigns of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who previously also visited the region to offer a regional security pact with China as seen previously with the Solomon Islands. While most Pacific Island countries have rejected the Chinese Foreign Minister's proposal, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong commented that Pacific Security is the responsibility of the Pacific family and that Australia is also part of that family.
Foreign Minister Wong also stated that Australia wants to help build a stronger Pacific family and will always work to address security challenges together by increasing support for Pacific maritime security and enhancing defence cooperation. Furthermore, Foreign Minister Wong emphasised that Australia wants to bring new energy and more resources to the Pacific region.
Returning to PM Albanese's visit to Indonesia, the current Australian government which is more diverse and open to the Asia-Pacific is a very good opportunity to further Indonesia-Australia relations which were previously very good. Of course, there is always an "up and down" relationship between the two neighbouring countries. However, opportunities for further improving relations in many fields such as economics, politics, security and culture have opened up under the Albanese government.
No less important than the relationship between governments, of course, is the people-to-people relationship between Indonesia and Australia. Opportunities for strengthening human-society relations are also widening as the COVID-19 pandemic situation in Indonesia, Australia as well as in many countries around the world are increasingly showing signs of being controlled.
Shared goals of economic recovery and cooperation for security as well as prosperity in the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions, whilst in the midst of increasing rivalries between two superpowers (the United States and China), makes good relations and close cooperation between middle powers such as Indonesia and Australia even more important.
The ranks of President Jokowi and PM Albanese are certainly aware of this unique opportunity and are discussing how to deepen relations between the two countries and their people, for the sake of mutual prosperity and security in the region. Strengthening cooperation at the local government level should also be further encouraged.***
- Rifqy Tenribali Eshanasir is a Junior Researcher at the Center for Peace Conflict and Democracy, Hasanuddin University, and an Alumnus of International Relations and Peace Studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan.