Over the weekend, two AIYA members, Arjuna Dibley and Nicholas Mark, were fortunate enough to take part in the second Indonesia-Australia Dialogue, a bilateral event which brought together high-profile figures from both countries, including Foreign Minister Bob Carr, Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Former Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr Hassan Wirajuda, as well as academics and senior journalists.

Overall, it was encouraging to see representatives from both nations optimistically aiming to strengthen relations in all areas, including education, culture, science and technology, and business and politics. Both Australia and Indonesia are currently experiencing interesting political circumstances, particularly with Indonesia’s upcoming  (and unpredictable) national election in 2014. In the meantime, there’s a lot of work to be done to implement solid positive progress.

The second day of the Dialogue included a speech from the current Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, which set out the key principles behind the Coalition’s Asia policy, should it win government in September. It makes an interesting counterpoint to Bob Carr’s speech to the IAD, but hasn’t yet attracted as much coverage.

With an emphasis on the ‘global century’, in contrast with the current Government’s preferred ‘Asian Century’ nomenclature, Bishop stressed that Coalition’s foreign policy priorities would be ‘unmistakably regional’.

Much like Labor, the Coalition has placed economic integration at the centre of their Asia-engagement policy. To this end, Bishop said that establishing free trade agreements with major Asian economies would be central, including finalising the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA CEPA).  Importantly, Bishop said that a key aspect of the Coalitions policy will be better coordination between trade and visa policies relating to Asia. This is an especially salient point for AIYA, given that visa issues have limited the number of Australians able to work and travel in Indonesia for extended periods.

Bishop made, and re-iterated, a number of specific policy commitments regarding the Coalition’s approach to relations with Indonesia, including a “no surprises policy” that would effectively guarantee consultation in advance of any decisions that would affect Indonesia’s national interest (a direct attack on Labor’s handling of the 2011 live cattle export ban).

The Shadow Foreign Minister also committed the Coalition to a ‘more realistic’ assessment of Australia’s diplomatic footprint in Indonesia, foreshadowing a possible reallocation of funding for DFAT, along with expanded representation in cities such as Surabaya.

The speech also elaborated on the Coalition’s ‘new Colombo Plan’ policy, which has already attracted coverage elsewhere. The plan commits a future Coalition government to an extensive overseas study program for Australians in Asia: so much so that it becomes ‘the norm, and not the exception’. Her speech also outlined plans to place more Australian graduates in internships in Indonesia: an effort that would also, inevitably, involve growing links with Australian businesses operating in Asia.

In the speech, Bishop said that the Coalition were planning to adopt Indonesia as the first test country for the internship program. To this end, we’d love to hear your thoughts: AIYA have been invited along to a round table to discuss this proposal in further detail.

While Bishop’s speech presents some promising signs for a stronger educational and economic relationship with Indonesia, it also raised a few questions: how will the Coalition simultaneously achieve a budget surplus and find adequate funding to open new diplomatic representation in Indonesia? What, if any, reciprocal benefits will be made available to Asian students under the new-Colombo plan? What assistance will be provided to interns under the new-Colombo plan to obtain visas?

The speech conspicuously avoided more sensitive diplomatic issues, such as the Coalition’s current commitment to tow asylum seeker boats back into Indonesian waters. In spite of the Coalition’s positive efforts to promote engagement with Indonesia, this issue has the potential to become a major diplomatic issue, and one which could derail the Coalition’s otherwise promising policies.

We’d love to hear your thoughts: feel free to leave them on our Facebook page, mention @aiya_national, or post in the comments below!