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After a dramatic leadership spill within the Liberal Party of Australia on Monday, Malcolm Turnbull was elected to replace Tony Abbott as the new Australian prime minister.
Whereas Abbott was the acknowledged leader of the right-wing conservative bloc within the party, Turnbull is much more a moderate in the tradition of Australia’s longest-serving prime minister and Liberal Party founder, Sir Robert Menzies.
During two years of Abbott’s prime ministership, relations between Australia and Indonesia experienced notable oscillations. Abbott had initially promised better relations with Indonesia, choosing the Southeast Asian neighbor as his first foreign destination. In his visit to Indonesia late in September 2013 he promised a foreign policy of ‘more Jakarta, less Geneva’.
Relations nevertheless started to deteriorate just two months later when then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recalled the Indonesian ambassador from Canberra in protest of the alleged bugging of Indonesian top leaders’ phone conversations. Indonesia then terminated some pivotal cooperation with Australia on military, intelligence and undocumented migration matters.
Cooperation resumed around seven months later after Australia agreed on a code of conduct, promising that it would not use its spy agencies in ways that could harm Indonesia’s interests.
Abbott was among the few leaders who attended President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s inauguration last year. Relations, however, became strained again on account of continuing differences regarding asylum seekers.
The two leaders, however, did not arrange bilateral talks, although they attended some multilateral forums together, such as the G20, East Asia Summit and APEC.
Relations reached a new low when Abbott recalled the Australian ambassador in a protest of the executions of drug convicts Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in April 2015. Indonesian public perception of Abbott was generally not great. A wide range of government officials, politicians, academics and non-state actors often expressed disappointment with Abbott’s unilateralist ‘stop the boats’ policy and his insensitive statements, such as urging Indonesia to exchange Australia’s tsunami aid with clemency for Chan and Sukumaran.
It is too early to expect that Turnbull’s rise to power will significantly change the course of relations between the two neighbors.
Turnbull himself rarely mentioned Indonesia in his political statements, compared to his large number of words on China, Japan and India.
But there are some pointers that one can identify from Turnbull’s past political records. In terms of foreign policy issues, there are some signs that Turnbull is eager to reexamine Australia’s existing foreign policy stance.
First, in contrast to Abbott, who was somewhat skeptical about multilateralism, Turnbull has progressive views on global issues. As environment minister in the Howard administration, Turnbull pushed for the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol — although the protocol was ultimately ratified by the Rudd administration.
Abbott, meanwhile, spurned the protocol and skipped UN climate conferences. After recent criticism from leaders of Pacific countries on Abbott’s substandard actions in combating climate change, Turnbull has an opportunity to revise it by pursuing a more progressive stance on climate change, including returning to binding international commitments.
Furthermore, Turnbull has a great interest in engaging rising powers. In one of his speeches he urged Australia to recognize China’s rising power status, rather than keep pursuing a balancing strategy between the US and China. Turnbull is concerned about the need to build a regional architecture that could better accommodate rising powers.
Moreover, the economy will become his top priority — it was also one of the main reasons for Abbott’s expulsion. Having Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who retained her position as deputy leader of the party, Turnbull’s foreign policy will be likely aimed at advocating forceful trade diplomacy.
On bilateral foreign trade agreements (FTA), Turnbull seems to be looking at bilateral FTA with India, after the conclusions of Australia’s FTAs with Japan, Korea and China. Regionally, Australia will focus on strengthening the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is currently undergoing intense negotiation.
The election of Turnbull may not decisively change Australia’s foreign policy toward Indonesia in the near term. Turnbull clearly backed Abbott’ ‘stop the boat’ policy, which became one of obstacles in Australia-Indonesia ties. But if the two countries could find common interest on the three aforementioned issues, relations will likely improve.
On climate change for instance, both Australia and Indonesia are members of the Cartagena Dialogue, an informal but strategic middle power grouping that could bridge the interests of various negotiation blocs ahead of the UN Framework Conference on Climate Change meeting in Paris in December. If Turnbull brings Australia back to a multilaterally binding commitment on climate change, there will be a great chance of convergence between the two countries.
On regional architecture, where Turnbull seems to adopt a more ‘friendly’ approach to rising powers, both countries could cooperate in either strengthening existing mechanisms through ASEAN Plus and the East Asia Summit, or exploring possible alternatives that could better serve the ambitions and aspirations of rising powers.
Of course, the relations will not only depend on change in Australia’s approach to Indonesia but the other way around as well. In this sense, some of Indonesia’s current protectionist policies do not help advance relations between the two countries.
The change in beef import quota for instance, has not only hurt Australian farmers but also made Indonesian consumers suffer from the skyrocketing price.
Economic relations between the two neighbors, however, have much potential to be strengthened. Australia’s investment in Indonesia is relatively low compared to that of other countries. With US$29.1 million investment in Q2 of 2015, Australia is only the 15th largest investor in Indonesia.
The more advanced version of the current Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic and Partnership Agreement (CEPA), with the possibility of a bilateral FTA, will enhance economic cooperation between both sides. It is not easy of course, given the strong anti-FTA sentiment in Indonesia — Indonesia currently has only two bilateral FTAs (with Japan and Pakistan), the fewest among major Asian economies.
Changes in foreign policy will give rise to some bureaucratic, parliamentary and public discourse issues, which of course will take some time.
It is also true that given the nature of Australia’s increasingly stressed political system, which has seen five different figures serving as prime minister in the last eight years, Indonesia should not be too dependent on a particular Australian politician or party.
But, at the very least, Indonesian elites will now be dealing with someone who is strikingly different from the previous prime minister.
Indonesian leaders can take some hope from Turnbull’s more consultative and ready-to-listen leadership style, which could prove to be the start of a positive transformation in both countries’ relations.
Awidya Santikajaya is a research scholar and Prof William Maley teaches at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, both at the Australian National University. This article first appeared in the Jakarta Post.