Indonesian-Australian relations have always been close, especially for
those living in Darwin, Northern Territory (NT), or the Top-End as they call
it. Not only is Darwin close in geographic proximity to Indonesia — being 370
kilometers to Saumlaki, Maluku, or 2.5 hours to Bali, as compared to four hours
to Sydney — but it bears close historic ties since Makassar sailors traded with
the Yirrkala aboriginal tribe in East Arnhem Land in the 17th century.
To retrace the close ties, the staff of the Indonesian Consulate in Darwin and
I visited the Yirrkala community near Nhulunbuy, about an hour’s flight north
of Darwin, to attend the Suara Indonesia Dance Group performance by Murtala and
Alfina O’Sullivan from Sydney, Dedy Amijaya from Ponorogo, East Java and
Rosealee Pearson from East Arnhem Land.
After receiving a traditional Yirrkala welcoming dance and witnessing
indigenous children perform Indonesian dances, I was approached by a
71-year-old Yirrkala elder named Dhuwarrwarr Marlika who was also partly from
Makassar in South Sulawesi. She reached out for my hand and whispered gently,
“Welcome home!” This was a great surprise not only to me, but also to all
guests, as she recited a message from her father about the lovely tales of
friendship, dance and family between the Yirrkala and the Macassans. Her father
died two decades ago. Now Dhuwarrwarr spends much time painting on bark wood,
depicting several themes about the Bugis Phinisi boats and fishermen that had
been part of the rich history that Australia and Indonesia possessed because of
the close proximity of the two countries. Since then, much more cooperation has
been established, particularly from Darwin, including in the fields of boats,
beef and Bali.
With beef or the live cattle trade, most bilateral trade goes through the NT.
In 2014, it provided 386,000 of the 750,000 cattle exported to Indonesia. For
the past four years the Northern Australia Cattlemen’s Association, along with
the Indonesian-Australian Partnership on Food Security in the Red Meat and
Cattle Sector, provided a nine-week cattle management training program for 54
Indonesian undergraduate pastoral students.
Through the NT government, East Kalimantan province is working on the Sapi
Sawit project, a scheme to raise cattle on oil palm plantations. Just recently,
four riverine buffalo were gifted for continued research. As beef demand in
Asia grows, Indonesia and Australia will need to investigate how they can be
stronger mutual partners in cattle cooperation.
Regarding boats, the issue of people smuggling, the trafficking in persons from
the Middle East and Asia into Australia, will continue to be a challenge for
both governments, as significant numbers continue to make the journey to
Darwin. Criminal syndicates are too eager to target poor fishermen, especially
in East Nusa Tenggara, by offering vast amounts of money for a quick trip
across the seas, despite the dangers.
For tourism, many Northern Territorians choose to fly to Bali as opposed to
flying down south. These strong people-to-people relations have allowed
for many exchange students from eastern Indonesia and the NT and also to better
engage business communities and for the promotion of human resource
The re-emerging Asian region also emphasizes the important position Darwin
holds, especially since Chinese President Xi Jinping mentioned the importance
of three cities for shipping, namely Hong Kong, Singapore and Darwin. The US
“pivot” to Asia and Japan’s interest in liquid natural gas in this region also
make it important for Indonesia and Australia to play a leading role in
The NT government is playing an active role in several subregional forums
including the trilateral Australia-Indonesia-Timor Leste cooperation and the
recent Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines-East ASEAN Growth
Area-Northern Territory network.
The recent meeting between President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Australian Prime
Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Jakarta brought about a promising atmosphere for
new bilateral relations. A diplomacy of proximity between Indonesia and
Australia could forge new ideas and cooperation for the coming years.
As Jakarta develops Indonesia’s eastern region and Canberra develops the
northern part of Australia (through its new White Paper and the appointment of
Federal Minister on Northern Australia Josh Frydenberg) and the keen interest
of PM Turnbull then there is a real opportunity for businesses, development
stakeholders and the people in this region to embrace their roles as actors in
regional stability and development.
Albeit for proximity, Indonesians and Australians are very different in culture,
history and perhaps outlook. But both peoples do have a strong desire to be
together. As Indonesian Ambassador Nadjib Riphat stated, “God did not make
Indonesia and Australia as neighbors only to argue, but as a blessing.”
The meeting of foreign ministers Retno LP Marsudi and Julie Bishop in Sydney on
Dec. 21 provided an opportunity to chart a new path in bilateral relations,
especially one that attends to the aspirations and hopes of both peoples.
This meeting could explore how Indonesia and Australia prepare themselves for
the new Asian century. It might even chart a new course so Indonesia and
Australia are not seen by the media merely as odd neighbors, but as truly
genuine partners. I think this time the latter will prevail.