Written by Anik Basu

With the July 9 Indonesian presidential polls set to elect a successor to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Canberra will have rebuild bilateral ties strained in recent times over a clutch of issues including spying by Australia, say foreign affairs experts Down Under.

“We were distracted by relatively minor issues: beef, boats, badly behaved Australians in Bali and spying,” wrote Peter Leahy, founding director of the University of Canberra’s National Security Institute, in a recent online article.

“This meant we did not effectively deal with the substantial structural and social adjustments required to bring about deep-seated changes to trade, economic and security matters,” Leahy wrote in The Interpreter, a daily blog of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, an independent think tank conducting policy research from an Australian perspective.

Leahy also noted the two neighbours were not natural partners, and suggested that the Australians, who “don’t know much about Indonesia”, should explore and understand individual and mutual interests.

A breakthrough was made during an official visit by SBY – as Yudhoyono is popularly known back home – to Australia in March 2010. He was appointed an Honorary Companion of the Order of Australia, an award conferred on both citizens and others for meritorious achievement. Yudhoyono also addressed the Australian parliament, the first Indonesian head of state to do so.

On June 4, he met Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to iron out differences, their first interaction since Jakarta recalled its ambassador last November, following revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden that Australia had tried to tap Yudhoyono’s phone as well as those of his family.

Abbott’s administration has also been accused of forcing foreign nationals to enter Indonesia. The allegations were made in May after the Australian Navy intercepted an Indonesian boat on its territorial waters and forced it to turn back; media reports said the crew had alleged that the Australians had forced them to take on board two asylum seekers from either Nepal or Albania.

Media reports quoted William Maley, a foreign affairs expert at the Australian National University, as saying this fell “within the definition of people smuggling“.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp, Maley also said those who have been involved in organising or facilitating that activity – “which could of course go right up to the top level of the government” – have committed a criminal offense.

The two presidential candidates, Jakarta governor Joko Widodo and former army man Prabowo Subianto, have said that the Abbott government was at the root of bilateral tensions.

At a televised debate on June 23, Widodo said Canberra’s “lack of trust” led to the “up and down, hot and cold” relations between the neighbours, while Subianto was equally dismissive, saying, “Honestly, I think the problem is Australia’s, not ours.”

Lowy Institute’s Leahy said it would serve Australia to look at Indonesia as a prospective market. “Indonesia is on track to become a major economic power and a large market to our immediate north. A secure and prosperous Indonesia is firmly in Australia’s interests,” he said.

–Edited by Kristine Diaz

By Ray