What does an average Indonesian know about Australia? Two things: its schools with its scholarships, and its friendly tourists – when they are not drunk — wandering across the archipelago.
What does an average Australian know about Indonesia? Two things: Bali – and increasingly Lombok – and Papua.
This is not a simplification. Nearly 10,000 Indonesian students enroll to study in Australian schools and universities each year, while more than one million Australians travel to Indonesia – around half of them to Bali and Lombok – every year.
In regard to Papua, almost any issue coming out of Indonesia’s easternmost province will be quickly responded by Australian media and public alike.
So, at human-to-human relations, Australian and Indonesian people have known each other quite well for years. In fact, for most Indonesians, it’s Australians who give white or western people a human face because they closely can see these ”bule” doing exactly same things their doing, or eat the same food they eat every day, not just by watching movies where the white guys playing hero and saving the world.
Australia, however, does not have the same level of influence as other big countries towards Indonesia. Not like Indonesia’s giant partners, like US, China, South Korea and Japan, Australia does not offer Indonesians its cars, cellular phones, or any other gadgets. Australia does not have any particular brands which are stuck into Indonesians’ way of life like Samsung, Apple or Toyota.
We’re not watching Australian movies nor singing Australian songs from Australian bands or singers. Australia does not have cultural force equivalent to Hollywood, Korean wave, or even Bollywood. They don’t produce icons, like The Beatles or MacDonald’s either.
The closest songs come to minds Indonesians fondly remember are Air Supply’s love songs.
Indonesian officials, especially, seem to have been indifferent towards Australia compared to their behavior towards other smaller neighbors, such as Malaysia and Singapore. In fact, they give much more attention to China and US, the two big powers, although they are not Indonesia’s immediate neighbors.
Beside the absence of cultural or soft power influence, this indifference also stems from the fact that economic relations are also still low compare to those powerhouses.
Despite the signing of the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IACEPA), which was signed in 2020, the trade and investment relation between the two countries have yet to reach the level that reflects the huge potentials possessed by the two nations.
Indonesia is Australia’s only 14th largest trading partner, with around $11.7 billion in two-way trade between the two nations as of 2018-19. This is far below Indonesia’s trade with China which came up to US$124.4 billion in 2021, more than three times its trade with the US (US$36.5 billion). Beijing has been Jakarta’s largest trading partner since 2013.
So, when new Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese touches down in Jakarta today, he is not in position of expecting anything from Indonesia, let alone dictating certain agenda but offering a genuine friendship and cooperation of mutual interests that can benefit people of both countries.
Australia can always play Papua card to increase its bargaining position towards Indonesia. But playing it too much will risk a backlash in which Jakarta can accuse Canberra of being insincere in its support and friendship.
Jakarta can always point to how Australia just joined AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and US) defense alliance, and acquired nuclear submarines without letting Indonesia informed beforehand — a move that really took Indonesia by surprise — to show how untrustworthy Australia has been.
While people-to-people relations have been genuine and organic, relations at the highest level is still suspicious in nature.
All of these distrusts and suspicions have hampered relations between Australia and Australia to increase to the next level. In term of gaining economic benefits, Australia can’t never match what China can offer to Indonesia.
But if Australia wants to at least limit China’s influence in the region, it must start to offer more than economic gains, which is friendship and cooperation Indonesia believes as genuine. We can’t afford to pretend that everything is going well between the two countries when the relations has been stagnant although it has been started decades ago.
Indonesia’s low trust to Australia is hardly a unique case. Timor-Leste has been felt betrayed also. The Southeast Asia’s youngest nation is now embracing China, which has created anxiety in Australia’s part. What if China builds naval base in Dili?
That’s why on his flight to Indonesia, Albanese needed to call and talk with new Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta to show assurance that Australia will remain a trusted friend.
Again sincerity and genuineness are what Indonesia want to see from Australia. Using this more genuine foundation, gradually Indonesia and Australia can increase economic relations that reflect their huge potentials.
With all the positive signs and right statements Albanese have shown, if there is an Australian leader that can reset the relation to more sincere and genuine, it should be him.
So, when Albanese meet with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Monday, we can be sure that we are dealing with a genuineness, and not a pretender.