Australian PM Turnbull hails ‘great future’ on Indonesia visit to fix ties
Ties between the neighbours sank to their lowest level in years under his conservative predecessor Tony Abbott, over rows about Jakarta’s execution of Australian drug smugglers, Canberra’s hardline policy of turning migrant boats back to Indonesia and espionage allegations.
Hopes are high that relations will improve under Turnbull, who took power in a Liberal Party coup in September. His views are more socially liberal than Abbott, whose tough approach often riled Jakarta.
Despite signs of warming relations, Turnbull’s government has shown no signal of easing its tough immigration stance and the controversial policy of turning back boats from its shores remains a source of tension.
Turnbull tried to keep the focus firmly on economic ties during the one-day visit to Jakarta, repeatedly stressing that both he and President Joko Widodo were businessmen who had later entered politics.
Following talks at the presidential palace, Turnbull said he and Widodo had “enjoyed very frank and exciting discussions about the great future for our two countries”.
“We have common, very common interests, and common objectives and it is about growth, it’s about jobs, it’s about stronger economies,” he said.
The premier said the major trade partners talked about infrastructure and investment — key focuses for Widodo as he seeks to boost Indonesia’s slowing economy — as well as the cattle industry, which has traditionally been a flashpoint between the neighbours.
Indonesia is the biggest market for exports of Australian cattle, but caused alarm earlier this year when it dramatically slashed its import quotas from Australia.
Jakarta insisted the decision was aimed at achieving self-sufficiency, though some said the move stemmed from bad blood between the countries.
The leaders avoided publicly referring to recent tensions on Thursday, although at the start of their meeting, Widodo acknowledged the “potential for friction” between Jakarta and Canberra due to the “proximity of our two countries”.
– ‘It’s a little warm’ –
After the talks, the leaders visited a large textile market in downtown Jakarta, where they were greeted by cheering crowds. The tropical heat seemed to get the better of Turnbull, who had sweat running down his face as he talked to reporters.
“It’s a little bit warmer than I expected… The temperature is warm but the warmth of the people towards the president is much warmer still,” he said to laughter from the crowd before taking off his jacket.
Turnbull said the pair also discussed the “challenge of violent extremism”, as fears grow in both Muslim-majority Indonesia and Australia about the threat of militants who have fought with the Islamic State group launching attacks on their return home.
It is Turnbull’s second foreign visit since taking power — his first was to New Zealand — and he will go on afterwards to several international summits.
Despite the long-standing ties, under Abbott’s leadership the relationship sank to its worst level since 1999 when Australia sent troops to East Timor as part of an international peacekeeping force to stem bloodshed after the territory voted for independence from Indonesia.
Tensions peaked in April when Jakarta put to death two Australian drug traffickers, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, despite repeated appeals from Canberra for mercy. Australia took the unprecedented step of recalling its ambassador from Jakarta for several weeks following the executions.
Indonesia has also been angered by Canberra’s hardline immigration policies, which are aimed at stopping the flow of asylum-seeker boats to Australia and include turning vessels back to Indonesia — a key transit point for migrants — when it is safe to do so.
Almost immediately after Abbott took power in 2013, a row erupted over allegations Australian spies tried to tap the phone of then Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono several years earlier.
Despite the recent problems, there have been signs the relationship is getting back on track, with visits by Australian ministers — which were frozen following the executions — resuming in recent months.