Anthony Albanese has declared he wants to strengthen the Australia-Indonesia relationship while deepening ties with south-east Asian nations amid escalating tensions prompted by China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.
Australia’s prime minister touched down in Jakarta on Sunday night accompanied by senior ministers and a high-powered business delegation to pursue a two-day diplomatic full court press in Indonesia.
The visit intensifies the regional diplomatic offensive the new Labor government has spearheaded since winning the federal election on 21 May. Australia’s new foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, has deployed twice to the Pacific in a fortnight to counter similar diplomatic outreach from China.
Wong is in Jakarta with Albanese and met her Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, shortly after her arrival. After that meeting, Wong told reporters Marsudi understood the regional flashpoints.
“I think everyone understands we live in a time where the region is being reshaped, and what is important is that countries work together to ensure that region remains peaceful, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty,” she said.
“Indonesia is a very important partner for Australia, a very important neighbour, it is critical for our security, we share a region and our futures are tied to the region we share so it was very important to meet with her.”
Before his first meeting as prime minister with President Joko Widodo at Bogor Palace on Monday, Albanese told reporters he looked forward to discussions spanning trade and investment, people-to-people links, foreign aid, security and joint actions to combat climate change.
With China actively courting Pacific nations, Albanese will also meet the secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Lim Jock Hoi, in Jakarta, before flying on Tuesday to Makassar on the southern tip of Sulawesi, a region Widodo wants to develop, and where Australia has opened its newest Indonesian diplomatic presence.
As Albanese prepared to travel on Sunday, it was revealed that Australia had complained to China about the “dangerous” interception of a maritime surveillance flight in international airspace in the South China Sea on 26 May.
Australia’s defence minister, Richard Marles, told reporters in Geelong the Chinese aircraft “flew very close to the side of the [Australia] P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft” then “released flares”.
Albanese also scheduled a conversation in-flight with Timor-Leste’s prime minister, Taur Matan Ruak, after the country became the latest neighbour to sign new agreements with Beijing.
The new bilateral agreements with Timor-Leste were struck at the tail end of a substantial regional sortie by the Chinese foreign minister and cover agriculture, media partnerships and economic and technical cooperation. Sunday’s conversation between Albanese and his East Timorese counterpart was said by officials to be “warm and positive”.
Asked on Sunday night what Indonesia made of the new agreements between Timor-Leste and China, Wong said: “I think we all understand that the foreign minister of China has been in the region talking to counterpoints just as I have been in the Pacific and now we are here in Indonesia talking to our friends and partners and we have a shared interest in a peaceful and prosperous region where sovereignty is respected.”
Labor has promised to increase aid both to the Pacific and to south-east Asia and it is using its more ambitious climate policy as the foundation of a diplomatic reset in the region.
On arrival in Jakarta Albanese told reporters it was important to strengthen the relationship with Indonesia and with south-east Asian nations. He suggested growing strategic competition in the region strengthened the case to tend important relationships.
“It is significant that I brought with me the foreign minister, the trade minister, the industry minister here as part of the delegation, but also we have serious business leaders from Australia here because they want to deepen the economic ties between Australia and Indonesia,” the prime minister said.
The business leaders include senior executives from Fortescue, BlueScope, Sun Cable, Telstra, Thales Australia and Wesfarmers, and there will be a business dinner in Jakarta on Monday evening.
The prime minister told reporters the visit was his first visit as prime minister, but was his sixth official visit to Indonesia. “My first visit as Labor leader was to Indonesia and I wanted to make sure that my first bilateral visit was here to Indonesia,” he said.
The prime minister attended the long-scheduled Quad leaders’ summit in Tokyo on his second day in office.