Tony Abbott is greeted by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Udhoyono. Photo: Ray Strange
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There is, of course, a very cynical way of deconstructing Tony Abbott's trip to Jakarta this week - suggesting it was just a stunt. Maybe it was; although if so, it is probably irrelevant. The pay-off is terrific: but what counts is the fact that the new PM has successfully emphasised this vital relationship.
When he was still in opposition, Kevin Rudd effectively marked out the connection with Beijing as his own. He is such a shy character it is quite possible that you might not have realised he speaks Chinese. But he does and this left Abbott with a political problem. He needed to position himself, somehow, as a statesman. Short of undergoing a crash course in Mandarin there was no way that Abbott could possibly have competed with Rudd on that turf; so he needed desperately to find something, or somewhere, else to engage with the world.
There is no way of knowing if someone merely pushed an open atlas in front of the then opposition leader, but if they did it wouldn't have been a bad way to start. When you observe which countries are located nearby, it quickly becomes obvious that Indonesia is a pretty significant behemoth. And that is why emphasising the relationship with Jakarta was pretty much a no-brainer for Abbott. It has already offered a defining image for his prime ministership. This allows him to throw off all the labels the media have attached to him as a subservient, European-focused anglophile.
If the trip had, obsessively, dealt with asylum seekers it might have worked in western Sydney; but Abbott extended its focus. Perhaps he does have extra dimensions, after all. He has set engagement with Asia on a vital new path.
For better (and for worse) the presence of Rudd dominates our entanglement with China. The relationship with Indonesia is far more nuanced. Although Paul Keating attempted to place his own stamp on bilateral ties in the early 1990s, his work rapidly fell apart under the combined pressures of president Suharto's fall and the subsequent independence of East Timor. But those issues are almost forgotten now, and the economic boom has meant that one of our nearest neighbours has become a different land to the place it was just a couple of decades ago.
In broader security terms, good relations with Jakarta are just as important as our deep friendship with Washington. No number of extra Air Warfare Destroyers or Joint Strike Fighters will, for example, serve as any sort of deterrent if Indonesia simply chooses to wave asylum seekers through to Christmas Island.
It is hardly surprising, given the rhetoric of our recent election campaign, that the media chose to frame Abbott's trip using the narrow focus of this single issue. Yet this also explains why the new Prime Minister struggled so hard to extend the framework. Abbott knows the issue of asylum seekers is a key one for his domestic constituency and is aware he needs, urgently, to resolve this problem. Nevertheless, if the bilateral relationship is framed exclusively in these terms, we become the supplicant. That is not a situation any country wants to be in, and this reveals why so much time and effort is being spent on extending the relationship to other fields. We need to offer as well as take.
There are, however, other vital reasons for deepening the engagement. Old trend: Australia's GDP is greater than the combined production of ASEAN. New trend: Indonesia's GDP is greater than Australia's. Old trend: Indonesians are poor, earning less than $4000 per person. New trend: In less than a year there will be more than 100,000 Aussie-dollar millionaires.
We have about double that number of people in this exclusive club. The difference is Indonesians are joining up faster than anywhere else on the planet. Demographics alone mean the relationship is changing. I can see the travel ad now: ''Bondi - the Kuta of Australia''. Just watch out for the ticket touts!
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.