Why leadership matters in the Indonesia-Australia relationship

In the time of global health crisis caused by the pandemic of COVID-19, relations between Indonesia and Australia are tested, writes Evi Fitriani.

Relations between Indonesia and Australia have grown relatively steadily in the last decade, especially when leaders could get along well. Leaders of the two countries signed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) in 2018, the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in 2019 and engaged in Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in 2020. Nevertheless, in the time of global health crisis caused by the pandemic of COVID-19, relations between Indonesia and Australia are tested: can the two countries cooperate to overcome the pandemic? Or at least, can the two maintain stable and constructive relations?

The pandemic does not only create a global health crisis but also compels countries to the very core of their self-centered behaviors. With COVID-19 spreading speedily and ferociously, countries around the world - both developed or less developed - have responded with panic. From stockpiling medical equipment to securing food supplies, from undermining science for political expediency to accusing other countries of the same, from locking down their cities to closing their borders or taking isolationist policy. All have strived to survive, some at any cost.

At the same time the traditional power politics and economic competition among major countries continue, creating enormous obstacles consolidating coordinated global responses to the pandemic.

Under these circumstances, Indonesia and Australia have the choice to be inward looking or neighbourly. In the time of the pandemic, the two neighbouring countries seem to be trapped in a common dilemma in international relations: on one side, wanting to maintain the momentum of good relations deepened previously by President Joko Widodo and former PM Malcolm Turnbull, but on the other side, compelled to take pragmatic moves and clutching to reliable partners – and finding out that they do not belong to each other’s reliable clubs.

The pandemic has abruptly changed the way countries interact. There are no more “cocktail parties” or “side talks”, as almost all communication and diplomatic events were converted to online meetings. This condition has placed significant limitations to commonly practiced diplomatic traditions between Indonesia and Australia.

In addition, the role of leaders created significant impacts on Indonesia-Australia relations. President Widodo’s personal relations with Turnbull cannot be matched by current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. These two circumstances, together with border closing and others, are probably the reasons behind the absence of the annual leaders’ meeting and “2+2” meeting in 2020.

In matters of support, the Australian government has offered a AUD$1 billion standby loan to Indonesia to counteract China’s robust vaccine diplomacy, but there is no data available on the real execution of aid and the effectiveness of the pledged loan.

In global affairs, Indonesia and Australia have mixed positions. Both countries have joined the global movement to ensure rapid and fair access to COVID-19 vaccines led by the WHO. Australia also joined the US in questioning China on the origin of COVID-19, which Indonesia did not. It seems that traditional allies and pragmatic engagements with other major powers remain significant in determining Indonesian and Australian foreign policies, even during a pandemic.

The general picture of relations between Indonesia and Australia seems to be determined by states’ policies and state-to-state interactions carried out by top officials. But leaders’ relations are not stable and a wider base of participants in the two countries’ relations needs to be strengthened and supported.

If business communities are not interested due to risk, then people to people relations should be emphasised. These have become the second pillar of Indonesia and Australia’s relationship, and are arguably more stable and more genuine.

However, this kind of relationship also needs time and resources to nurture as they deal with personal, social and cultural dimensions of involved actors. Investing in wider groups of young people and in more robust educational programs  can be significant strategies. Future generation in both countries need to be educated to respect differences and to control bias, as well as to find better ways to collaborate n the time of - hopefully - post COVID-19.

Dr Evi Fitriani is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Universitas Indonesia. This piece was first published in the La Trobe Asia Brief Issue 5 - Australia-Southeast Asia Relations: The post COVID-19 regional order.