Yudhoyono, Howard set to mend matters

VIEW FROM JAKARTA

RELATIONS between Australia and Indonesia have blossomed since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took office last October.

As the former general makes his trip to Australia tomorrow, he will become the third Indonesian head of state to make an official visit to Canberra since 1965.

The last Indonesian leader to travel there was Mr Abdurrahman Wahid in 2001 – and the one before that was Suharto in 1975.

But Dr Yudhoyono’s two-day visit promises to go the distance in mending a turbulent relationship that hit rock bottom during the East Timor imbroglio.

Political observer Arbi Sanit told The Straits Times: ‘Indonesians have not forgotten what happened in East Timor and it will remain as a source of friction.

‘But with Dr Yudhoyono’s ascendancy, the thinking is to look towards the more positive aspects of the relationship.

‘Both sides are really making an effort. I think we are heading towards a golden era of cooperation. This visit will be the most important in 30 years.’

Recent events have brought the two nations closer. The tsunami disaster in December spurred Australia to pledge A$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) in aid to redevelop a devastated Aceh.

This figure includes concession financing offering Indonesia up to A$500 million interest-free for up to 40 years, with no repayment of the principal for 10 years.

About nine Indonesian ministers, led by Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda and chief economics minister Aburizal Bakrie, are meeting in Canberra before Dr Yudhoyono’s visit to see how best to spend the pledged funds.

Projects could include rebuilding the main hospital in the capital of Banda Aceh and building a new highway along the Aceh west coast.

During the visit, Dr Yudhoyono and Australian Prime Minister John Howard are also expected to give the go-ahead for negotiations on a new security treaty which will cover defence, police cooperation, people smuggling, counter-terrorism and territorial integrity.

Underlying the new warmth is a personal chemistry between Dr Yudhoyono and Mr Howard.

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