Malcolm Turnbull seeks to repair Indonesia damage

Malcolm Turnbull has reset relations with Indonesia and expressed confidence the Free Trade Agreement will be signed next month after meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. But he has warned Indonesia will not tolerate moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Labor will mount its own diplomatic push with Jakarta today by promising closer diplomatic ties and to dump any plan to relocate Australia’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.

The former prime minister was sent to Indonesia by Scott Morrison after Mr Turnbull’s ousting in August so upset Jokowi that questions were raised over the relationship and the Australia-Indonesia Free Trade Agreement that is near completion.

Senior diplomatic sources said the President, who had a close personal relationship with Mr Turnbull and requested he personally travel to Jakarta, was “beside himself” at the ousting of Mr Turnbull.

One source said the President contemplated “walking away” from the FTA.

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Mr Morrison’s subsequent contemplation of relocating Australia’s embassy in Israel during the last week of the Wentworth byelection campaign exacerbated the situation, raising fears the FTA which was due to be signed next month could be deferred.

“It’s gone down like the proverbial lead balloon in Jakarta,” said the source.

“[Mr Morrison] can’t do it, he’ll have to find a way to kill it off.”

It is understood much of the 45-minute meeting between Mr Turnbull and Mr Joko late Monday was about the Jerusalem decision. There were no officials in the room. Mr Turnbull said Jokowi’s views about the embassy were “pretty strong”, but the government could be confident the FTA will be signed next month as scheduled.

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Masudi, who complained to her Australian counterpart Marise Payne about the decision, will meet Mr Turnbull on Tuesday.

Mr Turnbull noted that his government decided that moving the embassy to Jerusalem “after careful and considered advice” was that “a policy that was well over 40 years old, 50 years old, should remain exactly as it is”.

As the government awoke to a new poll on Monday showing it badly lagging Labor and Mr Morrison souring with voters, Labor said Mr Turnbull’s trip to Jakarta was a diminution of Mr Morrison’s authority.

“I think that Scott Morrison following Donald Trump on foreign policy to try and grab a few extra votes in the Wentworth byelection was short-sighted and irresponsible,” said deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek of the Israel embassy announcement.

“Having to call on Malcolm Turnbull to go and fix the mess that Scott Morrison has made with our neighbours shows that Scott Morrison shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

Labor’s policy push

In a speech to be delivered Tuesday, shadow foreign minister Penny Wong will further Labor’s Indo-Pacific policy push by promising, if elected, to establish four new diplomatic posts in the region, one of which will be a consulate in Indonesia.

“Our footprint is still relatively light in Asia. Our embassies and high commissions in the capitals work hard to effect as wide a representation as they can, as do our smaller posts in regional centres,” she will say.

“But they are limited in the number of staff available and the large distances that need to be covered.

“Given the growing importance of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia, a new post there will be a priority.”

In doing so, Senator Wong will slam Mr Morrison’s Jerusalem decision as “an ill disciplined announcement taken without proper consideration and management of consequence or risk”.

“It was a poorly motivated announcement, intended to send a domestic political signal with little regard for foreign policy consequence.”

Senator Wong will also promise to create the positions of geo-economic counsellors to be placed in embassies in Bangkok, Beijing, Hanoi, Jakarta, New Delhi, Tokyo and Washington.

“These geo-economic positions will play a key role in identifying improved ways of connecting and leveraging Australian private sector and civil society activities in the interests of broader foreign policy objectives,” she will say.

“They will also help to ensure our development, trade and diplomatic policies are integrated and that our development assistance programs across the region are visible to and coordinated with the various Australian enterprises operating there.”

Labor is ramping up its foreign policy credentials ahead of next year’s federal election. Last week, shadow treasurer Chris Bowen announced Labor would spend $32 million to boost Asian language teaching in schools and on Monday Labor leader Bill Shorten gave a speech outlining Labor’s approach to the region.

This included the establishment of a regional investment bank as an alternative to China’s Belt-and-Road initiative and a promise of a more nuanced relationship with China and the United States.

While the alliance with the US will remain strong, “we will tell truth to power, recognising that we will not always see eye-to-eye on international issues” .

“We can, and will, express any differences within the enduring framework of our close relationship,” he said.

“This is how friends and allies engage. That’s what a confident and independent approach to foreign policy means.”

Mr Shorten said unlike the Trump administration, Labor would not always regard China as a regional menace.

“The next Labor government will not deal with China purely through the prism of worst-case assumptions about its long-term ambitions,” he said.

“Pre-emptively framing China as a strategic threat isn’t a sufficient response to its role and increasing influence in our region. These kinds of false binaries take us nowhere.

“We will deal with China on the basis of the actions it takes and in our own national interests. “In other words, our approach will be sophisticated enough to recognise where our interests align and where they diverge.”

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