The planned fresh start to Australia’s foreign policy promised by Tony Abbott was thrown into turmoil this week when a refugee boat bound for Christmas Island sank only three days ahead of his arrival on his first trip to Indonesia as PM. The exact number of passengers is unknown and so far 36 are confirmed drowned.
It’s a terrible but unwelcome distraction to a trip designed to start focusing on Australia’s opportunity in South East Asia: trade and investment.
Abbott campaigned in his successful bid to become the country’s next conservative Prime Minister on a promise to “turn back the boats” as well as delivering on a more Asian centric foreign policy he describes as “more Jakarta than Geneva”.
The first plank in this plan was to make Indonesia, Australia’ closest neighbor, his first port of call and he arrived in the capital Jakarta today accompanied by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb as well as a delegation of 20 chief executives, company chairpersons and business group leaders.
But that message is now certain to be overrun by the ongoing refugee problem that Abbott has promised to solve but with which Australia is already in disagreement with senior Indonesian politicians although all that was smoothed over today.
“We have had very cordial, constructive and collegial discussions on the issue of people smuggling,” Abbott said after meeting President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono this afternoon
“We are resolved together united to tackle this problem and to beat it – on land and at sea, and at the borders of our countries,” he added.
“We are determined to end this scourge which is not just an affront to our two countries, but which has so often become a humanitarian disaster in our seas between our two countries.”
Abbott said on Friday in a statement ahead of his visit that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia was “broad-based”, spanning business, education, defence, security and “people-to-people” links.
Robb followed up with a statement on Sunday.
“As a government we are determined to demonstrate that Australia is very much open for business and that we are committed to being a stable and reliable trade and investment partner with all countries with which we share important relationships,” he said.
They are on the money but this government must deliver on its words and regularly visit other important countries in the region such as Singapore (we hear the PM is a fan), Thailand (Robb’s apparent favorite) , Malaysia and Vietnam. The last government spent too much time on Myanmar, as important as the opening up of that country is, ignoring Thailand for instance with which Australia has had a Free Trade Agreement since 2004.
Australia is the natural partner of choice for South East Asian nations Abbott says, and he is right. But it’s not happening and he needs to figure out how to do it beyond the important symbolism of short visits and whistle stop business delegations.
As ANZ chief Mike Smith, probably Australia’s most regionally engaged chief executive outside the big miners said in The Australian at the weekend:
“China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan are increasingly looking at Indonesia – North Asia is looking at becoming more involved . This underlines the need for Australia to do more.
Boosting investment in Australia’s diplomatic corps and its trade representatives, as well as taking a really good hard look at the Austrade model and providing financial backing to the various Australian Chambers of Commerce in the region would be a good place to start. To get some payback we need to invest more – it really is that simple – or Australia will be beaten on all sides by other countries.