Scott Morrison Joko Widodo Israel Embassy Jerusalem Free trade agreement
Scott Morrison with Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

While most of south-east Asia has been spared from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic — for now — the region’s most populous nations, Indonesia and the Philippines, have continued to struggle largely ignored by the Australian media.

In Indonesia, cases rose to an average of nearly 4500 a day in the past week. Indonesia’s Health Ministry announced 4497 new cases and 79 deaths on October 11, bringing its total number of infections to 333,449. The official death toll stands at 11,844.

The disease is in all 34 provinces and Bali has been forced to close to tourists again after reopening for a short time.

The pandemic has sparked economic and political problems too. Indonesian GDP fell by 5.3% in the June quarter and is expected to continue falling, handing Indonesia its first recession since the 1998 Asian financial crisis.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

This will be exacerbated by climbing infection rates.

To counter this, the government passed a new “omnibus” job creation law last week that amended 79 laws, including the labour, spatial planning, and environmental management laws.

The government claimed the job laws would lift employment to boost a sagging economy. Its supporters said the dramatic, wide-ranging piece of economic reform was sparked by the failure of dozens of bitsy reform bills in the past half decade.

But trenchant opposition by labour unions and environmentalists who said they would cut wages and open the country to fresh environmental vandalism — including by foreign firms — have seen a string of violent street protests that have roiled cities across the archipelago.

As well as the basic unrest, there are fears that the mass protests will spark a further acceleration of COVID infections that experts say are still only part of the first wave and have been undercounted.

The country’s healthcare system is coming under real pressure with overflow facilities being hastily constructed in the capital Jakarta. The looming recession is set to exacerbate the situation amid talk that December regional elections, already delayed from September, may be pushed back again.

It’s fair to say COVID-19 has not been a highlight of Joko Widodo’s presidency, now in its second (lame-duck) term — he cannot run again under the constitution.

The COVID crisis has seen Widodo hand over a bigger role for the military to police lockdowns and rules aimed at limiting infection numbers. Observers say this has further opened the door for the Indonesian armed forces to play a greater role after being increasingly sidelined after the collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998.

It continues a quiet trend under Widodo, who has a number of former army generals in his cabinet as a way of propping up his base in the country’s rough and tumble politics.

Further, with Widodo running down the clock of his once-promising presidency in an unfortunate, unspectacular mirror image of his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, potential successors — such as Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan — are working the virus for political positioning.

COVID and its economic and political fallout could well reshape Australia’s international neighbourhood for the worse.

None of this bodes particularly well for Australia. Indonesia has been named by a string of recent prime ministers as our most important relationship, and its political stability — underpinned by a strong economy and south-east Asia’s best functioning democracy — is high on Canberra’s list of foreign policy hot buttons.

In the past six months especially, the Morrison government has become consumed with all things China to the exclusion of most other issues to the north and north-west.

In May Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne paid some lip service to helping Australia’s south-east Asian neighbours with the COVID crisis, promising bits and pieces of aid here and there — but little of any substance.

It’s also worth remembering the context of the Coalition’s seven-year program to dramatically wind back the foreign aid budget and Scott Morrison’s decisions to rip hundreds of millions of dollars out of the international aid program in Asia and elsewhere and repurpose it for the Pacific.

The irony here is that this was also done to counter Chinese aid and the influence it brings to the tiny nations scattered across the Pacific. Yet any political weakness in south-east Asia is being exploited by Beijing — witness the tilt towards China under Thailand’s military rule and the authoritarian Duterte administration in the Philippines.