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Australia’s Jerusalem decision highlights a larger problem

Image credit: Mia Salim (Creative Commons: Flickr)

Australia’s relationship with neighbouring Indonesia has been put in the spotlight during recent weeks, regarding the stalled signing of a monumental free trade agreement between the two nations. During the somewhat controversial APEC meeting in Papua New Guinea in mid-November, talks between the two nations were overshadowed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s October 16th indication of potentially moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This statement, regarded as a move to gain popularity with the large Jewish population in the electorate of Wentworth, has now been put into fruition. In an official statement, Morrison stated that Australia will now recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. However, the Australian embassy will remain in Tel Aviv for now in the hope that a peace settlement will be reached under a two-state solution in which East Jerusalem will be recognised as the capital of Palestine.

This decision has been called a “step in the right direction” from Israel’s foreign ministry, but it will not be taken so lightly by Australia’s closest neighbour and the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia. Indonesian President Joko Widodo had already put the signing of the Australia-Indonesia Free Trade deal on hold due to the mere suggestion of an embassy move to Jerusalem.

The trade deal, negotiated over eight years, and incorporating economic affairs, education, counter-terrorism and maritime issues was due to be signed in November 2018 but now has no defined date of ratification. The deal offers huge trade advantages to Australian producers, with promises of up to 99% of Australian exports to Indonesia being tariff free and under improved arrangements. The choice to recognise West Jerusalem as the capital as Israel, and the means in which the planned move was announced revels a much wider problem: the incredibly lax attitude that Australia has toward its closest, and perhaps most strategic, neighbour.

Australia’s niche role as part of the British colony and continued protection from the US has left Australia with a sense of superiority that it is the most important player in the region. This problem is first highlighted by Morrison himself, in the leisurely way he announced the potential embassy move to reporters. To put at risk a multi-billion dollar trade deal eight years in the making in what would seem a mere fish for liberal party votes.

Since the postponement of the trade deal’s ratification, this problem is seen further in a recent tweet from Tasmanian Liberal senator Eri Abetz, expressing a poorly disguised threat to withdraw aid if Indonesia fails to sign the agreement. Similar comments have since been replicated by Liberal senators and after overhearing a conversation in the local newsagent about the “ungratefulness” of Indonesians for the aid we give them, and how an impoverished nation shouldn’t be “allowed to dictate our foreign policy” it clearly still remains the view of many everyday Australians that our relationship with Indonesia is one in which they are dependent on us for assistance and aid and we get little in return. But this is not the case.

With two way investment between the nations totaling $11.8 billion in 2017, and two way trade at $16.5 billion, Indonesia is Australia’s 13th largest trading partner. We are dependent on them for exports of wheat, crude petroleum, live animals and coal and with millions estimated to have being lost every month the trade deal is delayed, the lax attitude given to our relationship with our closest neighbour is a real issue that must be addressed.

Yes, the trade deal is important to both sides, and arguably the relationship will survive. However, it is currently a relationship that should be prospering, not merely surviving.

Jess Yorke has recently completed her Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne, speaks fluent Bahasa Indonesia and hopes to improve the Australian-Indonesian relationship.

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