Turnbull tries to rebuild Indonesia relations

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

Australia’s new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, made a half-day visit to Indonesia on Thursday to hold talks with President Joko Widodo, in an effort to repair a relationship damaged by issues including human smuggling, the plight of refugees and the executions of Australian drug offenders.

“The geographic proximity of our two countries is a fact,” Joko said. “The closer the distance means the higher the intensity of the interactions, which means that there will be higher potential for friction.”

At the presidential palace in Jakarta, Turnbull and Joko reportedly discussed means to increase trade and tourism, possible Australian investment in infrastructure and cattle breeding and a strategy to counter extremism.

“Frank and exciting discussions about the great future for our two countries [took place],” according to Turnbull, who is embarking on a five-nation tour of Europe and Southeast Asia.

“We had a productive and warm meeting,” Joko added.

The pair did not take questions from journalists.

Ongoing tensions between Australia and Indonesia include disputes about democracy and human rights, the breakaway of the former East Timor and the treatment of live imported Australian cattle at Indonesian abattoirs.

Previous Australian prime minister Tony Abbott in September 2013 began forcing boats carrying migrants back into Indonesian waters.

Two months later it was reported that Australia’s embassy in Jakarta was involved in a multilateral spying effort led by the United States that was targeting Indonesia and other countries.

In April, Jakarta executed eight drug convicts, including two Australian men, ignoring Canberra’s calls for clemency. Both nations briefly recalled ambassadors after the executions.

A month later, after crowded boats with thousands of refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar began arriving in Indonesia but Abbott refused to offer any asylum in Australia.

In June, Abbott refused to comment on allegations that his naval forces paid smugglers to send a crowded boat back to Indonesia after intercepting it at sea.

The countries are about 200 kilometres apart at their closest point and analysts say the countries share too many interests to let the relationship sour. They are significant trading partners and Australia is a major donor to Indonesia.

Turnbull is likely to avoid Abbott’s tough stance on security issues, observers say, instead focusing on economic and investment opportunities.

Indonesia and Australia are members of the G20 wealthy nations and Jakarta intends to join the new Pacific trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes Australia, Japan and the USA.


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