President Joko Widodo will urge Scott Morrison to end onerous entry requirements for Indonesians wanting to visit Australia when he flies into Canberra this weekend for an official visit.

The Indonesian President, armed with a freshly inked trade deal that could come into force by April, wants his citizens to be offered visas on arrival in Australia, which mirrors the treatment Australians receive from Indonesia.

In an interview with The Weekend Australian before his three-day visit, Jokowi — as he is widely known — said he believed the occasionally rocky diplomatic relationship between Indonesia and Australia was now at a historic high. “Now I think it’s the best relationship it’s been,” Mr Joko said. “Prime minister (Malcolm) Turnbull we are very close with; Prime Minister Scott Morrison we are close with.”

Mr Joko’s visit is well-timed, with Indonesia’s lower house of parliament giving the green light only late on Thursday to the Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA), a deal 10 years in the making and approved by Canberra last year.

The agreement will reduce trade tariffs and barriers for Indonesian goods and Australian agriculture, as well as Australian health, education, mining and tourism services. It will also encourage the two nations to work together to develop products and services for third-country markets. Last week a team of Indonesian armed forces personnel flew to NSW to join rehabilitation efforts in areas devastated by bushfires.

Mr Joko said Indonesians had been moved by the devastating bushfires that had swept eastern Australia, which he believed were a consequence of climate change. “We feel for Australia about these forest fires; we understand the pain that all Australians have experienced with fire,” he said.

Australian tourists are heeding the call to explore Indonesia beyond Bali and the two countries are co-operating more closely than ever across government agencies, defence and multilateral organisations.

It is a far cry from the diplomatic crises of the recent past caused by waves of asylum-seeker boats, embassy attacks, Bali bombings, spying revelations and the 2015 executions of Bali Nine leaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. But the Morrison government’s reluctance to reciprocate Jakarta’s generous visa regime for Australian visitors remains a hurdle to Canberra’s touted ambitions for closer ties between the two countries.

While Australian tourists enter Indonesia visa-free for under 30 days, Indonesians must pay a non-refundable $140 application fee for an Australian tourist visa and fill out a 17-page survey that includes questions such as “have you ever committed an act of genocide?”

“Visa on arrival should be reciprocal and fair,” Mr Joko said. “I will discuss this (with Mr Morrison) because it’s very important for us.”

Indonesian trade negotiators pushed hard for greater access to Australia’s job market but won only minor concessions, including a hike in the number of working holiday visas for young Indonesians from 1000 to 4100 each year.

The Indonesian government believes the time is right for Australia to give ground on visas, with Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi also tipped to raise the issue with her counterpart Marise Payne during this visit.

Indonesia Institute director Ross Taylor said the regime for Indonesian visitors was not only at odds with Canberra’s rhetoric about the relationship’s importance, but also with the treatment of visitors from neighbouring Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia, who may apply for $20 visas online. “How do you build understanding between people if you won’t let them in?” Mr Taylor said. “There is this inherent fear that Indonesians would quickly join many of their Malaysian cousins in overstaying and seek asylum, but Indonesians have a very good compliance rate of return.”

Last year 9.1 million Indonesians travelled abroad, yet only 1.75 per cent chose to holiday in Australia. But the current coronavirus epidemic has exposed Australia’s overdependence on Chinese students and tourists, as it has economies across Southeast Asia, including Indonesia’s.

John Blaxland, an ANU professor of international security and intelligence studies, said the underlying rationale for the difficult Indonesian visa regime was the need to stop people-smugglers, but for Australia to have any hope of reducing its overexposure to China “we have to make it easier for Indonesians to come”.

Mr Joko will be the first Indonesian head of state in 10 years to address a joint session of parliament on Monday and, with his wife Iriana, will join Mr Morrison and his wife Jenny for a lunch in parliament’s Great Hall on Monday. Trade and investment are top of his agenda, with the President bringing a high-level business delegation as well as his ministers of trade and foreign affairs, who will stay on to work out implementation details for the IA-CEPA. Two-way trade currently lags at about $17.8bn, making Indonesia, the region’s largest economy, only our 13th-largest trading partner.

The Lowy Institute’s Ben Bland said that while securing a trade agreement with protectionist Indonesia was a big achievement, it might not be enough to convince the Australian business community, which still harboured frustrations about doing business in Indonesia.


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