The Buzz

Creating Synergy: An Agenda for Turnbull’s Visit to Jakarta

Tomorrow Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will sit down with Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) for some valuable face time. Just over a year into his presidency, Jokowi has already had some experience dealing with Australian foreign policy challenges, having responded to both the boat turn-back policy of the Abbott government and rockier diplomatic ties surrounding the execution of two Australian prisoners in Bali in April.

This meeting is a chance for the countries to start afresh and, with economics and trade set to be on the agenda, there should be plenty to discuss given Turnbull’s and Jokowi’s respective business backgrounds. But should the leaders’ first meeting be so straightforward?

More than merely a meet-and-greet, this Jakarta visit could potentially set the tone for Australia–Indonesia relations for the foreseeable future. Despite their business backgrounds, the two heads of government should see to rise above transactional diplomacy. We face a world of shared challenges, from terrorist networks to environmental concerns, so it’s never too early to start deepening cooperation and discussing shared responsibility.


Jokowi’s global maritime axis vision is likely to remain a dominant feature of his foreign and domestic policy and this is a good chance for Turnbull to develop a firsthand understanding of Jokowi’s intentions. In essence, the vision involves reinvigorating Indonesia’s character as a maritime nation, building up its maritime defences, optimising oceanic resources, and seriously upgrading its ports and related infrastructure to help boost the economy (PDF).


Of course, most foreign investment will come from major players like Japan, China and the US. However, there are other challenges that could hamper the realisation of Jokowi’s maritime vision and it’s in these areas where Australia can offer targeted cooperation. Those include defence capability and acquisition, maritime research and conservation, policy development and interagency coordination, and anti-corruption efforts. With Jokowi’s term set to last another four years, it’s a good time for the Turnbull administration to establish a solid working relationship in areas that play both to our strengths and to Jokowi’s needs.


The face-to-face meeting also affords Turnbull the chance to ask Jokowi how he perceives both China’s actions in the South China Sea and the recent US freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near Subi Reef. Australia and Indonesia are both deepening their economic and investment ties with a rising China, with Indonesia–China ties growing even closer under Jokowi and Xi. With the Royal Australian Navy and the Indonesian Navy kicking off Exercise New Horizon on Monday, Turnbull could discuss the future of South China Sea defence diplomacy with his counterpart.


It would be beneficial to discuss international order in the light of China’s land reclamation activities and what role Jokowi envisages for Indonesia as a middle power diplomatic actor. During his recent trip to the US, Jokowi revealed to a Brookings Institute audience that he wanted Indonesia to take a more active role in the South China Sea. What’s less clear is exactly what this role would entail. Thus far, unlike the previous administration, Indonesia isn’t falling over itself to engage ASEAN as a framework for regional diplomacy and in any case, the adoption of a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea continues to move at a glacial pace, if at all. Complicating matters further, the Chinese nine-dotted line puts Indonesia in direct conflict with China even if Indonesia doesn’t like to admit it—the line cuts through Indonesia’s UNCLOS-enshrined maritime territory. If Indonesia were to play an ‘honest broker’ role, what other regional organisations or diplomatic instruments could it rely upon, and what role could Australia play?