Last week, I joined the Leader of the Opposition in the Australian Parliament Anthony Albanese and shadow foreign minister Penny Wong on a visit to Jakarta to continue discussions with Indonesian colleagues and friends on the future of our bilateral relationship.
It was far from our first working visit. In 2012, then-Minister Albanese played a key role in achieving concrete outcomes between our transport sectors. For her part, Shadow Minister Wong visited Jakarta for her first overseas visit in this role, signalling our party’s enduring commitment to the relationship. And, I was personally glad to be back in Jakarta over a year ago leading a delegation to discuss deepening engagement and bilateral trade.
Australian governments of all stripes have long shared a firm commitment to deepening our important relationship with Indonesia.
As Senior Managing Editor, Kornelius Purba wrote in these pages, our bilateral relationship is enjoying a ‘second honeymoon’. He ascribes the first honeymoon to the trusting relationship between Indonesian President Suharto and Australia’s Prime Minister Paul Keating.
Kornelius recalled the role which Australian port workers played in 1945 by refusing to load Dutch ships carrying arms to repress Indonesian independence. He also expressed Indonesians’ gratitude for the sacrifice of nine Australian personnel during Australia’s relief efforts to the terrible 2004 tsunami.
I would add that many Australians remember that brave Indonesians fought alongside our soldiers to try to defend Ambon Island in 1942, the strategic foothold which then enabled the Japanese to bomb Darwin several weeks later. History has taught us the vital lesson that the defence of both of our countries is inter-twined by geography.
Nor will we forget the radio broadcast of Indonesia’s first Prime Minister Sutan Sjahrir who thanked his friends in Australia; Australian dock workers and soldiers in the Pacific War. Movingly, Sutan Sjahrir declared that in future conflicts a strong and independent Indonesia would ‘defend your freedom too, you will be able to keep your sons at home’.
And we do not forget how critical Indonesia remains to securing Australia’s borders.
Of course, there are still occasional obstacles to deepening bilateral relations. For one, the Australian Labor Party laments the lack of Bahasa Indonesia language and Asia literacy in Australia, which have atrophied due to chronic under-investment.
Outdated stereotypes also persist on both sides of the Timor and Arafura Seas, which we must tackle together by strengthening people-to-people links at all levels of governments, the private sector and among civil society actors.
We must also acknowledge the legacy of a trust deficit resulting from sometimes difficult chapters in our history. It is in our shared interest to overcome the pains of the past as we seek to protect the common public goods of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region.
Australia will increasingly look to Indonesia’s leadership in Southeast Asia and globally to address threats to international peace and security. Indonesia has already demonstrated its confidence and capacity as a regional leader, including as ASEAN Chair in 2011. And there is no doubt in my mind that a stronger and more trusting bilateral relationship with Australia will also be of significant advantage to Indonesia for a number of reasons.
Firstly, deepening our defence cooperation, including through Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercises, will increase our interoperability and preparedness to deal with regional contingencies, be they related to humanitarian, natural disasters, climate change or security. Building on our 2018 Defence Cooperation Agreement is a simple first step.
Secondly, Indonesia’s space sector stands to benefit from the development of a space port in the Northern Territory. A satellite launch facility in northern Australia will open up fruitful partnership opportunities with Indonesia’s space industry, which previously launched satellites from India and South and North America. This could help Indonesia to save on costs, accelerate research and relieve its West Java launch site.
Thirdly, we could be doing more to develop better air services and economic, tourism, investment and cultural ties between Indonesia’s eastern provinces and northern Australia. During my time in Indonesia, I had the opportunity to meet with East Nusa Tenggara Deputy Governor Josef Nae Soi in Kupang. We discussed the great potential for closer cooperation as near neighbours and I look forward to our regions working together into the future.
As the representative of Australia’s northern capital of Darwin and a long-time friend of Indonesia and student of its culture and language, I will do my part to deepen our ties. And, I believe the Australian Labor Party will play a major role, as has been its historic and enduring position. But we all need to contribute to what will be a major, inter-generational effort to elevate our comprehensive strategic partnership to something much deeper and broader.
Strategic trust must be founded on the geographical reality that our freedom, sovereignty and defence are inseparable, as Indonesia’s first Prime Minister eloquently suggested. But to thrive, our partnership will need to trickle down to the collective imaginary of both of our societies. Indonesians and Australians will need their leaders to set out convincingly why they are not only fated to need each other strategically, but to integrate economically in a more comprehensive way. Within Australia’s Labor Party, I will be making the case that IA-CEPA will have a big part to play, but it must only be a start.
A version of this opinion piece was first published in The Jakarta Post on Monday, 2 September 2019.