After the triumphant disaster that was Malcolm Turnbull’s first phone call with newly installed US President Donald Trump, Australia now almost certainly will not be able to dump the 1250 refugees rotting on Nauru and Manus Island on the United States. Trump has said “I will study this dumb deal” in a tweet, and reports said he told Turnbull the refugees would be subject to “extreme vetting.” 

But Australia should not look to Asia for help — the “sad” truth, as Trump might say, for Turnbull and Australia regarding friends in the region is that the cupboard is barer than it has been for some time.

The only rolled gold pieces of good news are Singapore — arguably Australia’s closest ally in the immediate region — and Japan, which occupies a similar position in the broader Asia-Pacific. The Japan Free Trade Agreement is actually kicking some goals (most notably the $8 billion acquisition of Tool Holdings by Japan Post) and the relationship’s solidity was underscored by Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s recent visit. The usually reliable South Korea is in political turmoil following the impeachment of its president Park Geun-hye, and China is, well, China.

Former “good friend” locks, Thailand and the Philippines, are now run by respectively a military junta (since May 2014) led by PM and former army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha and an aggressive “strongman” in form of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Both, nominally still close US allies, have hooved closer to Beijing. and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has at least made efforts with Thailand, visiting last year. But she has been vocal in her criticism of the Duterte government-sanctioned program of extra-legal killings of suspected drug dealers, which has murdered at least 6000 people in less than a year. Turnbull has, typically, maintained silence on both countries.

Malaysia remains in the hands of questionable Prime Minister Najib Razak and is in danger of careering out of control. Vietnam is one other bright spot, whose economy is on the up and whose relations with countries like the US, Japan and Australia has warmed considerably over the past decade. However, the ruling Communist Party is as repressive as the one in Beijing when it comes to minorities and dissenters.

But Australia’s “most important” relationship, as determined by both Turnbull and his predecessor Tony Abbott, is with our big northern neighbour, Indonesia, south-east Asia’s largest and most populous country and its No. 1 economy, and it is here that things are, arguably, most concerning.

The Indonesian relationship is more unbalanced than the ones with the other major economies in the region. Australia has free trade agreements with Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Japan and South Korea, and all those nations are in our top 10 trading partners. Not so Indonesia, which despite its size languishes at No. 12 mainly because, like Australia, it is a resources exporting economy and is actually a major competitor in selling its biggest export coal to China and other Asian nations. With the Coalition’s government’s diplomacy through trade strategy — nowhere better exemplified than the appointment of Austrade chief Bruce Gosper as the new high commissioner to Singapore — efforts to sign a free trade deal with Indonesia are underway but really, what’s in it for them?

But Indonesia is a relationship that needs a lot more than more trade niceties. The latest drift, in a relationship riddled with them, came with the hysterical response from Tony Abbott and an Australian media that hitherto had not given much of a hoot about the Bali Nine to the decision to execute Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran by firing squad. President Joko Widodo was singularly unmoved, a signal of his relative lack of priority around the Australian relationship compared with his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Indeed, Widodo, still seen as a weak president — a provincial politician with no links to the powerful military  — who is beholden to his main backer, former failed president Megawati Sukarnoputri, has plenty on his plate domestically, and  his international focus, like most in the region, is on China and Japan.

At the moment Widodo’s biggest immediate challenge is a clutch of regional elections in mid-February in various parts of the country notably in Jakarta, where his successor, Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely known as Ahok, remains ahead in most opinion polls despite populist rallies organised by the radical Islamic party Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) aiming to have Ahok charged with blasphemy (for a disputed rant against the Koran). The last of the rallies in December attracted about 700,00 people to the centre of Jakarta. Adding some piquancy to the race is the presence of SBY’s son Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono as another contender for governor. His father has recently re-entered the fray, suggesting that Widodo is not doing enough to counter radical Islam. Some suggest SBY quietly encouraged the protests against Ahok, so it could be a particularly cunning ploy from one of the region’s smartest operators. Indonesia has long been determined to clamp down on radical Islam — often with the help of the Australian Federal Police, who are rapidly spreading out across the region helping south-east Asian governments fight people and drug smuggling as well as terrorism.

This is a key area where Turnbull must focus his attention.

Indonesia represents the single biggest diplomatic challenge for Malcolm Turnbull, a fact that was only underscored by the Trump call, which has thrown out the certainty of US support in all corners. He is fortunate in that his senior foreign policy adviser, the highly regarded career diplomat Greg Moriarty was the last Ambassador to Indonesia and has plenty of counter-terrorism expertise.

But with domestic woes aplenty, largely self-inflicted, it’s the last thing the PM needs. It must seems like an age to Turnbull since the comfort of the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In fact it was not even three weeks ago, a very long time in politics.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey