Australia and Indonesia have pledged closer strategic ties in the Indian and Pacific Oceans in what is being seen as a sign of growing concern about China’s militarisation in the South China Sea.
The joint declaration, released after the meeting between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, makes no specific reference to China, but makes several mentions about concerns relating to the, “rules-based regional architecture”.
China has repeatedly ignored international law as it continues to claim disputed territories in the South China Sea as its own. The elevation of Indo-Australian security ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership was formalised by Mr Widodo and Mr Morrison at a signing ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Bogor.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison sits at a school desk in Indonesia. August 31, 2018. (Photo: Jane Norman/ABC)
The Joint Declaration talks of “the threats of conflict” and “shifts and challenges” in the “dynamic region” both countries share. “If left unattended, these may lead to the dismantling of the precious ecosystem and rules-based regional architecture that we have built over the past half-century.”
“Our partnership reflects our vision of a region in which the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is central, the rights of all states are respected, and countries behave in accordance with international rules and norms.”
When asked whether the agreement was about standing up to China, Mr Morrison rejected the notion of a “zero-sum game”. “For one relationship to be stronger, another relationship doesn’t have to be weaker” he said.
“I don’t accept the zero-sum game of dealing with our partners and our neighbours … we are great friends of the United States, of the United Kingdom. We have worked closely and shared prosperity with our friends in China as well.”
Free trade deal sealed after eight years
The two leaders also emerged from their meeting to announce the conclusion of a free trade deal, eight years in the making. Much of the detail is still under wraps but grain growers are among the early winners with Indonesia agreeing to import 500,000 tonnes of grain from Australia, tariff free.
Mr Morrison said negotiators had also secured lower tariffs or greater market access on live cattle, dairy and horticulture. But this “Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement” is about more than agriculture, with Australian vocational training providers being given the green light to set up shop in Indonesia.
Mr Morrison declared the “economic relationship” underdone and said Australia wanted to be part of Indonesia’s rapid growth. “As an economy that continues to advance in all areas from technology to the rural sector and we want to be part of that,” he said. “The relationship needs more ballast, more grunt, more investment, more engagement.”
Ahead of his visit to the Presidential Palace, Mr Morrison visited a high school in Bogor that Australian aid money funded. He spoke to students and heaped praise on their President, describing Jokowi as an “extraordinary fellow” and an inspiration to his people. Mr Morrison is fully aware of the close bond his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull enjoyed with the president, acknowledging the fact that he is inheriting a very healthy bilateral relationship.
He had never met Mr Widodo before Friday but after their formal talks, said they had begun “a friendship as important as the one he shared with my predecessor Malcolm Turnbull”. “It’s my absolute intention and priority to keep the momentum going and to take [the relationship] to a new level,” he said.
Mr Morrison gifted the motorcycle-mad President a kangaroo-leather bike jacket from Australia and the pair had afternoon tea in the botanical gardens to get to know each other in a more casual setting. With Mr Widodo facing an election next year, there is a sense of urgency in getting the trade deal passed by Indonesia’s Parliament.
He is already facing strong nationalistic forces in his Cabinet, who would rather go without than import foreign agricultural products, and his opponent Prabowo Subianto is running on a protectionist platform The question remains how strongly Mr Widodo pushes to see these deals with Australia realised.