Jokowi set to push for closer ties with Australia

Mr Joko is likely to make a far-reaching push for closer military and economic ties with Australia.
Mr Joko is likely to make a far-reaching push for closer military and economic ties with Australia.

Indonesian leader's visit likely to lead to joint naval patrols in South China Sea, trade deal

When he finally touches down in Australia today for his first state visit to the neighbouring country, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo is expected to put aside recent tensions and make a far-reaching push for closer military and economic ties.

Mr Joko, or Jokowi as he is popularly known, will spend just under two days in Australia, against the three days he was originally planning for a trip scheduled for last November.  That trip was cancelled due to protests at home over the Jakarta gubernatorial elections.

But there are signs his weekend trip will deliver significant results.

On the eve of his visit, the first by an Indonesian leader in five years, Mr Joko signalled plans to discuss holding joint naval patrols with Australia in the South China Sea.

He said he intended to discuss the patrols with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, suggesting they could potentially be held near Indonesia's Natuna Islands, in waters that China has claimed. But he also said the patrols should be conducted only if they avoid raising tensions in the region.

 "If there is no tension, I think it's very important to have the patrols together," he told The Australian newspaper. "We will discuss this with PM Turnbull."

The move marks a significant turnaround from recent tensions between the two nations.

Last month, Indonesia's military suspended some training programmes in Australia over concerns about teaching materials found at an Australian base where Indonesian forces were training. The materials reportedly touched on sensitive subjects such as West Papuan independence.

Mr Joko is expected to lift the suspension following discussions tomorrow with Mr Turnbull.

The two-day visit is also expected to  include discussions on a free trade agreement, which could be finalised by the end of the year.

Analysts say the Indonesian leader does not necessarily share the same level of warmth for Australia as his predecessor, Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, did. But Mr Joko's workmanlike approach to foreign affairs and his emphasis on business ties have helped to develop strong bilateral relations.        

An Australian expert on Indonesia, Professor Adrian Vickers from Sydney University, said Jakarta and Canberra will both be keen to deepen ties because of the regional uncertainty caused by the election of Mr Donald Trump as US President and China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Mr Joko, accompanied by his wife, Mrs Iriana Widodo, will arrive in Sydney this morning and is due to meet Australian trade officials and business leaders in the afternoon.

Tomorrow morning, Mr Joko will hold one-on-one talks with Mr Turnbull, while Cabinet ministers from both nations will hold separate meetings.

Ties between both nations have often been marred by disputes. In recent years, these have included Australia's policy of towing boatloads of asylum seekers to Indonesian waters, revelations that Australia had attempted to spy on Dr Yudhoyono, as well as Indonesia's execution of two Australian drug smugglers.

Yet, as is typical, leaders on both sides have pledged to press ahead with plans to cooperate in a range of areas, including counter-terrorism, maritime security and trade.

Dr Dave McRae from the University of Melbourne's Asia Institute said Mr Joko's visit "fits with an underlying belief long held by each country's government that, as neighbours, Australia and Indonesia need to get along".

"When relations have been genuinely strained, the same leaders have typically sought to mend fences," he wrote in The Australian Financial Review yesterday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2017, with the headline 'Jokowi set to push for closer ties with Australia'. Print Edition | Subscribe