SYDNEY - Indonesian President Joko Widodo is making his first visit to Australia Saturday, in a sign that tensions early this year have eased and relations between the two Asia-Pacific neighbors are stable.
Australia’s relationship with its heavily populated northern neighbor is often turbulent. It soured when Australia supported East Timorese independence from Indonesia in 2002.
More recently in 2015, diplomatic tension rose when Jakarta executed two members of an Australian drug trafficking gang despite pleas for mercy from Canberra. In January, Indonesia briefly suspended bilateral military ties after a dispute at an Australian Special Forces base in Perth.
Optimism for trade progress
Those anxieties have soothed, and there is optimism that Widodo’s visit will see meaningful progress on a free trade agreement.
Aaron Connelly, an analyst at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, says ties between the two countries are in good shape.
“The remarkable thing here is that despite that background of irritation that we see on occasion, relations between the two are actually pretty good,” Connelly said. “Ministers on both sides have good relationships with their counterparts, and you also have Australian feelings towards Indonesia at a high.
“In our Lowy Institute poll last year we asked Australians to rank countries on a thermometer from zero to 100, and Indonesia ranked at 56 degrees, which is the highest result we have ever seen in 11 years of polling,” he added.
South China Sea also on agenda
Widodo and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull are also expected to discuss the dangers posed by radicalized fighters returning home from the conflict in Iraq and Syria. Tensions over the South China Sea are an additional topic on the agenda, along with the possibility of joint navy patrols in the area.
While significant, the Indonesian leader’s visit to Sydney will be brief. He arrives Saturday and flies home after lunch Sunday.
He was forced to cancel an earlier state trip to Australia last November because of violent disturbances in Jakarta.