As Indonesia's president Joko Widodo (or "Jokowi" as he is widely known) prepares to fly to Australia on Sunday, officials from both countries can breathe a little easier in the knowledge that the bilateral relationship is in good shape.
Australia continues to enjoy a positive working relationship between the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Indonesia Police (POLRI) that goes a long way to keeping over 1.2 million Australians safe while they holiday in Bali each year. Our respective defence forces are increasing their communications and joint activities as our region becomes less stable. Our Defence Minister Linda Reynolds is certainly Indonesia-savvy, having lived there some years ago. Senior officials in DFAT and Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs work co-operatively, with the respective foreign ministers, Marise Payne and Retno Marsudi, in regular touch. And our educational and relatively small business-to-business links continue to be very warm.
And it is in the area of business where both leaders will seek to give the relationship a large boost during this presidential visit. With the Australian Parliament having already ratified the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, or IA CEPA as it is known, Ministry of Trade officials in Jakarta have worked overtime to have the deal approved this week by their parliamentary commission before the President's address to a joint sitting of the Australian Parliament on Monday. The announcement by the President will mark a significant advancement of this critical relationship, including trade and business links, despite some concerns within Indonesia that the trade deal puts Indonesian workers and small businesses at a disadvantage.
With GDP growth at 5 per cent - a growth rate most advanced nations would cheer about - Jokowi is under pressure to boost the economy and create more and better jobs, particularly for the 95 million people under 35 years of age, and to achieve the annual GDP growth of around 7 per cent that is needed.
For Australia, IA CEPA will create access for a wide range of our agricultural products including an expansion of our beef exports, allowing partnerships to form to "add value" in Indonesia with third-party exports to nations in North Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Education, technology and medical sectors will also benefit enormously. There will be new opportunities in infrastructure and aged care, in which qualified Indonesian nursing staff can be engaged within nursing homes in Australia - where the availability of quality and caring staff is at a crisis level - boosting our people-to-people links within a key area that affects many Australians.
Business groups and NGOs are also encouraging the government to use the IA CEPA agreement to expand these people-to-people relations as a matter of priority, as the positive news about the current relationship overlooks one significant flaw: that relationship's shallowness. Here in Australia we generally find a community that, Bali notwithstanding, sees Indonesia through a prism of ignorance and ambivalence.
Regular surveys conducted by the highly respected Lowy Institute show that Australians - including business people - feel limited warmth towards Indonesians, and rate them only slightly higher than Russians and Egyptians in terms of how we perceive them. Over the past 10 years the study of the Indonesian language in Australian high schools and tertiary institutions has collapsed, contributing to this malaise within the relationship between our two countries.
Work is already being done in getting Australians to know Indonesians better. Last year the New Colombo Plan sent over 700 young Australians to live and study in Indonesia. Likewise, the Holiday-Work program that allows young foreign travellers to visit Australia has been expanded to allow up to 1000 young Indonesians to holiday and work here each year.
These are positive programs, but tourism from Indonesia continues to lag badly. Last year 9.1 million Indonesians travelled abroad, yet only 1.75 per cent of those chose to holiday in Australia, primarily due to the red tape and cost of applying for a visa. Australia currently attracts a pitiful 126,800 Indonesian holidaymakers each year - compared with 280,713 from Singapore and 242,000 from Malaysia - costing us millions of dollars at a time when our tourism economy is struggling after the bushfires, and in recent weeks, due to the coronavirus that is impacting tourism from China dramatically.
Notwithstanding the reluctance of both countries to acknowledge the people-to-people issue as an impediment to creating more depth in the relationship, the visit to Australia by President Jokowi will be successful and also genuinely warm, as our two leaders get to know each other better.
With the formal ratification of the IA CEPA trade deal, the remaining bilateral challenge for both countries will be to build capacity in this relationship between Australia and Indonesia by getting our border security policies and the critical people-to-people links correctly balanced, creating an environment where we can all get to know each other better and more often.
- Ross Taylor is president of the Indonesia Institute based in Western Australia.