Chinese tourists sit and view the Sydney Opera House, which is lit up in red to welcome in the Lunar New Year, in Sydney on Feb. 8, 2016
Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images
By Sharon Verghis / Sydney
February 22, 2017

This weekend, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will make his first state visit to Australia. Both nations have much riding on this meeting, which comes after years of tensions sparked by incidents ranging from the execution of the Australian ringleaders of a group of drug smugglers known as the Bali Nine to a controversy in January, when teaching material on West Papua — a restive Indonesian region that is home to a militant independence movement — was discovered at a Perth army base by Indonesian troops during a joint training exercise. The find led to a halt in defense cooperation.

Jokowi’s visit was originally planned for last November, but canceled following mass protests in the Indonesian capital by Islamic fundamentalists seeking the ouster of the city’s ethnically Chinese, Christian governor. It comes at a sensitive time in regional geopolitics, following Donald Trump’s first phone call as U.S. President to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last month. In the call, Trump criticized a refugee struck earlier between the two countries as “dumb,” accused Turnbull of wanting to export the “next Boston bombers” to America and all but hung up on one of Washington’s oldest allies.

For many, the diplomatic debacle surrounding the conversation between the two leaders should make Australia finally sit up, realize its place in Asia, and assess who its friends really are.

Asia has long been vital to Australia in terms of economic, military and political ties, but it has remained more of a transactional and pragmatic relationship rather than one based on a genuine cultural and emotional alignment, Ramesh Thakur, of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, tells TIME.

“The tyranny of distance has been replaced by the search for profits as a result of proximity … there is no doubt in my mind that we are being inexorably pulled into the Asian orbit under the sheer gravitational pull of geography but it is definitely pragmatic.”

According to Thakur, the Australian soul remains stubbornly rooted in the West, caught in an existential struggle between history and geography in a kind of “double bipolar disorder … its cultural identity is transatlantic, but it is located geographically in Asia-Pacific. Its chief security guarantor is the U.S., but its biggest trading partner is China. The process of reconciling these twin tensions can be emotionally and intellectually wrenching.”

Vedi Hadiz, professor of Asian studies at the Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne, says progress was made under the progressive Keating administration of the 1990s, but adds that there has been a regression during the conservative administrations that followed, which wishfully dreamed of Australia “as located somewhere between England and the USA.”

The current strong anti-immigration and antirefugee sentiments, “out of proportion to reality,” point to a residual domestic unease with Australia’s identity in region, he believes.

A choice between history and geography

At the same time, a dramatic new world order has shaken up all those old realities. Brexit, the isolationist and unpredictable Trump Administration, and an emboldened, expansionist China in the region may mean that Australia, finally, has to make a psychic break and choose between history and geography, observers say.

Greta Nabbs-Keller, adjunct lecturer at the University of Queensland’s School of Political Science and International Studies, says “Trump’s beration of a serving Australian Prime Minister caused consternation in Canberra policy circles, throwing the centrality of the [Australia, New Zealand and U.S.] alliance as the bedrock of Australia’s security in doubt.”

She adds, “In repudiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal, one of two fundamental pillars of the U.S. pivot to Asia [more commonly referred to as a rebalance],” Trump will naturally drive Australia to look to Asia in pursuit of common interests.

In the past, Australia could “hide behind America” when it came to China, says Hadiz. Now, the country will look with renewed energy to its giant Muslim-majority neighbor to the north as a potential bulwark and ally.

The Indonesia-Australia relationship, however, has historically been a rocky one, based on mutual suspicion.

As Adrian Vickers, professor of Southeast Asian studies at the University of Sydney puts it, “Indonesia does not regard Australia all that positively. Indonesians were brought up with the history of the ‘white Australia’ policy, and have a cynical view of Australia’s actions … Suspicion about Australian support for Papuan independence remains. Some of the Indonesians who have studied in Australia have experienced Australian racism, so the personal ties are not always good.”

However, Vickers adds, “The anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Trump Administration means that Indonesia will be looking regionally for ties, particularly in the light of the dominance of China and questions such as the South China Seas disputes.”

For Australia, a country long regarded as “the oddity on the continent” rather than an inalienable member of the Asian family, it will mean a slow but necessary cultural reorientation, Thakur says. Will Australia’s neighbors regard any cultural bridge-building as genuine?

It will be tough but oddly enough, last month’s “phonegate” debacle may actually win Australia admirers “within the region because clearly, the Australian Prime Minister stood up for Australian values and beliefs.”

Nabs-Keller is similarly optimistic. “In the past Australia has been criticized by its Asian neighbors for a lack of foreign policy independence and enduring cultural ambivalence toward Asia,” she says. But, she adds, “contending positions on the merits of closer Asian engagement” have “naturally petered out as the realities of the transnational nature of security threats and the global power shift toward Asia rendered such debates redundant.”

Thakur says Australia’s transformation into a “vibrant, modern, multicultural” society after decades of immigration should also allow it to finally lay to rest lingering xenophobic unease at its place in the region and profit from what it does offer: a peaceful political culture, a strong economy, and an educated and prosperous middle class.

“This will give us enormous opportunities in Asia,” he says, “from education to trade.”

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