Australia’s Rudd Visits to Boost Ties, Push EU-Style Bloc

JAKARTA ~ Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd arrived in Indonesia on Thursday to deepen his country’s often brittle ties with its giant neighbor and push an ambitious plan for an EU-inspired Asia-Pacific community.

Rudd’s first visit as prime minister to Jakarta comes with strong expectations of a more Asia-focused foreign policy from the centre-left leader than his conservative predecessor John Howard.

“I think this is the beginning of a new era in the Indonesian-Australian relationship because it’s a reflection of a commitment to look more to Asia than other parts of the world,” said Bantarto Bandoro of the Indonesian think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Australia sees a stable and prosperous Indonesia as key for stability in the region, as well as an insurance policy against Islamist radicalism.

The Mandarin-speaking Rudd has made engagement with Asia a key priority of his foreign policy since his election in November and last month he called Australia’s relationship with Indonesia “one of our closest and most valued.”

He has been criticized at home for “snubbing” traditional partners such as Indonesia and Japan in favor of China, the destination for his first Asia visit as prime minister in March.

But analysts said Indonesia was not as sensitive to the Australian’s sinophilia as Japan and point to a rapport he already seems to have established with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whom he was to meet on Friday.

“I think this will be about a deepening of their personal relationship now that Rudd is in office as prime minister,” Andrew MacIntyre, from the Australian National University, said.

“Likewise, I think they will be looking both to see what more they can do with the bilateral relationship.”

A key part of Rudd’s visit will be to garner support from Yudhoyono for a plan to establish an Asia-Pacific Community inspired by the European Union, MacIntyre said.

The roughly sketched plan, which Rudd unveiled in a speech last week, would see a community including the massive economies of China, India, the United States and Japan established by 2020.

“Without Indonesia’s agreement, (the plan) won’t proceed,” MacIntyre said.

Yudhoyono spokesman Dino Patti Djalal has said Jakarta is looking closely at the proposal.

“We are actively reading the idea proposed by the prime minister and we will look forward to hearing more about it when the president meets him,” he said last week.

But like every meeting between Australian and Indonesian leaders, Rudd and Yudhoyono’s talks will attempt to build a relationship strong enough to weather prickly disagreements that routinely sully ties.

A 2006 row over Papua’s independence movement saw Indonesia withdraw its ambassador to Canberra and newspapers in both countries trade offensive cartoons depicting the other country’s leader as a copulating dog.

One of the most emotional issues for Australians, which could define Rudd’s dealings with Jakarta, is the murder of five Australia-based journalists in East Timor during the Indonesian military’s 1975 invasion.

An Australian coroner last year found that the so-called “Balibo Five” were executed by Indonesian special forces soldiers, and referred the case to the attorney-general for possible a war crimes prosecution.

This could mean an imminent request for the extradition of suspects including retired officers Christoforus da Silva and Yunus Yosfiah, a former minister.

Yuhdoyono’s administration has signalled it will refuse any extradition request. An attempt by Australian police to question a former Jakarta governor during a visit to Sydney last year prompted street protests here.

Analysts said Rudd would remind Yudhoyono of Australia’s opposition to the death penalty as three Australian drug smugglers await execution in an Indonesian prison.

Yudhoyono would probably press Australia to lift a long-standing travel ban slapped on Indonesia in the wake of 2002 bombings on the holiday island of Bali that claimed the lives of 88 Australians, MacIntyre said.

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