This week, Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce was in Indonesia in the hope of strengthening agricultural ties. Let’s hope chatting cows and mi goreng helped towards patching a fragile relationship.
Australia’s historical relations with its closest neighbour have been difficult ones. Diplomacy between the two countries throughout the twentieth century has remained on good terms, with Australia supporting Indonesian independence in 1945, remaining dutifully silent on the massacre of alleged communists in 1965 and brutal forced annexation of East Timor a decade later. During the late 1990s and early 2000s however, Australia’s support for East Timor’s independence and participation in peacekeeping efforts was seen as a grave betrayal. It remains the ire of many Indonesians. There has also been tension over Indonesia’s repressive policies in West Papua.
Former PM Tony Abbott’s government promised a new style of foreign policy, declaring it would be “less Geneva, more Jakarta.” Starting well, Abbott’s first international destination after being elected was indeed Jakarta. He lauded Indonesia as Australia’s single most important relationship. Within two months, however, any sense of improving relations was shattered by the phone-tapping scandal.
Indonesians were absolutely livid.
The Coalition’s arrogant unilateral announcement of a policy to tow asylum-seeker boats back to Indonesia further incensed their government. The Indonesian Foreign Minister slammed the policy as “inhumane.” President Joko Widodo stated categorically: “We will give a warning this is not acceptable.” The campaign to stop the executions of “Bali Nine” drug smugglers Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, supported by Mr Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, was in vain. They were killed along with six others in high-profile executions in April. Australia pulled its ambassador, marking a new low in bilateral relations.
In July, Australian farmers were devastated to hear Indonesia would be drastically reducing its cattle imports, citing the need for greater self-sufficiency. It allowed only 50,000 head of cattle between July and September this year, compared with 250,000 the previous quarter. Many commentators suspected it was merely reflective of further soured relations.
Step in the Honourable Barnaby Joyce. This week he visited Indonesia with the aim of progressing agricultural cooperation, investment and trading opportunities between the two countries. He praised Indonesia’s decision to take an additional 50,000 cattle this quarter to address shortages, with the first shipment of cattle arriving in Jakarta this month since the quota was cut. Mr Joyce also pointed to significant increases in Australia’s agricultural imports from Indonesia, from $168 million in 2011 to $218 million in 2014, citing our taste for Indonesian noodles, pasta, cocoa and “sustainably harvested forestry products.”
Joyce met with five ministers over three days, declaring the trip a success. Having met with his counterpart Amran Sulaiman, and Trade Minister Thomas Lembong, reports say that Australia is close to finalising a deal that dictates an annual quota for Australian cattle, to be announced in December. Another result of the visit was the development of a partnership to combat illegal fishing across the region. He reflected upon its implications for diplomatic relations, noting that “we have to make sure that come the New Year, that we keep that relationship going.”
Coincidentally, this week saw Indonesia confirm that Australia was among five “friendly” countries that will provide assistance in fighting forest fires across Borneo and Sumatra. This also bodes well for the friendship. Joint counter-terrorism efforts after the 2002 Bali bombing and Australia’s provision of $1billion aid in rebuilding Aceh after the 2004 tsunami catalysed positive cooperation.
Mr Joyce’s self-congratulatory remarks about improving relations seem valid. By the end of the week, Indonesia had issued permits for a further 50,000 head of Australian cattle.
On Thursday night, Indonesian Ambassador Nadjib Riphat Kesoema celebrated Malcolm Turnbull’s rise to Prime Ministership and declared that bilateral relations were now on an “upward trajectory.” He pointed to the resumption of high-level ministerial contact, the stabilisation of the live cattle trade and reported that Indonesian President Joko Widodo had had a “pleasant” conversation while congratulating the new PM.
These early signs of improvement are exciting. 2015 has been an atrocious year for Australia-Indonesia relations. Barnaby Joyce however, might have just helped turn that around.
Originally published on The Big Smoke.