Australian Embassy

Diplomacy in the Time of Coronavirus

Gary Quinlan
Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia

I arrived in Indonesia three years ago and am now concluding my term as Australian Ambassador. I fly out of Jakarta today at the end of my three years. COVID-19 has been a terrible disruption in those three years, but it has made starkly clear how important it is that our two countries maintain a strong and resilient partnership.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the most disruptive event globally since World War II. The world after the pandemic will be more disorderly and less resilient.  The world economy has suffered a very serious blow, poverty has increased and recovery will be a long road.

The pandemic revealed a lack of global leadership which has put a premium on greater cooperation between individual countries. That is best done between trusted partners.

Australia and Indonesia have that kind of partnership borne of a long history together after 1945 when Australia was Indonesia’s strongest supporter globally for independence.

The immediate focus of our partnership is working together to come out of the pandemic.

Our early assistance for personal protective equipment, ventilators and related medical equipment – has now been complemented by our support for vaccines. We are providing support through a $101.9 million package, together with a further $80 million for the COVAX vaccine facility of which Indonesia is a member. Further assistance will be provided as part of our Quad partnership with the United States, Japan and India.

Early in the pandemic, we pivoted our development cooperation program to support Indonesia’s response, including in health, social protection, online learning, and disaster management. A loan of $1.5 billion provided fiscal support. Economic recovery, including building momentum for our businesses through the new Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) which came into force during the pandemic, is very much a top priority.

Trade and investment between us has long been below its potential. Trade declined during COVID-19 but below expectations, and in a few areas increased in Indonesia’s favour. All Indonesian products can now enter Australia without any tariffs, giving Indonesian exporters a cost advantage over goods from other countries that don’t have an agreement with Australia.

As we rebuild, IA-CEPA will deliver opportunities for a new generation of economic and technological cooperation between our countries. Tariff-free inputs from Australia, such as sugar, cattle and steel, will help Australian and Indonesian businesses to integrate supply chains, not only to make things for our respective domestic markets, but also for export to third countries.

There are new rules to help grow e-commerce and facilitate collaboration between our telecommunications companies that will future proof our economic relationship.  Australia will shortly issue a Blueprint for Deepening Trade and Investment – to encourage Australian businesses to quickly explore new opportunities in the Indonesian market, creating jobs and growth.

Of course, there has been a loss of momentum in areas affected by border closures and continuing travel restrictions, especially in-country and face-to-face training. Online engagement has helped a lot but cannot indefinitely substitute for operational training and capacity-building on the ground. The skills development programs under IA-CEPA can really only work when direct engagement in each others’ country becomes possible.

Tourism and education have taken a big hit from the pandemic.  For Australians, Indonesia has been the second most favoured destination for overseas travel and the largest travel influx in to Bali in the year before the pandemic was from Australia, almost 1.3 million Australian visitors. Both our countries want to see this rebuilt as we get the virus under control and borders reopen.

On education, there are still almost 9000 Indonesian students in Australia, but this is only half the level before COVID-19. Online learning has been effective and there has actually been an increase in enrolments by Indonesian students in Australian vocational education and training during 2020. But this is not sustainable over the longer-term. Still, at the same time Monash University, one of the world’s leading institutions, will open Indonesia’s first foreign campus later this year and several Australian universities are currently establishing new collaborations with Indonesian partners. Australia is already Indonesia’s third-ranked research publication partner and new partnerships are emerging, including potentially for future cooperation in research commercialisation.

Almost 10,000 Australian students came to Indonesia over the first four years of the New Colombo Plan. During 2020 these students had to undertake their studies and internships online. So we look forward to our vaccination roll outs enabling our border arrangements to be safely restored.

Looking beyond the economy, tourism and education, Australia and Indonesia have some of the closest operational cooperation in our region – including on law and security, defence, counter terrorism, maritime cooperation, border management, transport, and agriculture. Our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreed in 2018 and its Plan of Action adopted during President Widodo’s visit to Australia in February last year maps out an ambitious agenda to increase this, including in defence, the maritime domain, and in cyber cooperation; the latter is vital to ensure the integrity of critical infrastructure and the digital economy.

Despite some highs and lows over past decades – as with any close neighbours – history has shown that our relations are resilient. COVID-19 has reinforced that.

Politically, we are closer than ever previously, driven largely by the fact that we share very similar interests to secure a stable and successful region during a period which is experiencing historic change. Our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, one of only a handful that each of us has, specifically includes cooperation to shape the region as one of its five pillars.

When President Widodo addressed Australia’s Parliament last year he said that “Indonesia and Australia must become the anchors for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region”. We are both actively committed to that objective.

President Widodo also said that countries cannot choose their neighbours, but they can choose their friends. He described Australia as “Indonesia’s closest friend”.


This article was originally published in the Jakarta Post on 15 April, 2021. Read the original article.