When I was last in Jakarta, Malcolm Turnbull was the prime minister. President Joko Widodo took the Australian prime minister for a walk through a local market – part of his regular tradition as the Indonesian leader.
Back then, the walk was a gesture of healing. Turnbull’s visit in 2015 was an effort to reset one of Australia’s most important foreign policy relationships, which several events had derailed during the Abbott prime ministership, including running disagreements over asylum boat turnbacks, revelations that Australia had spied on (or attempted to spy on) the then president, Susilo Yudhoyono, his wife and nine members of their inner circle in 2009 and – later – the executions of the Bali Nine duo Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.
This time, Australia’s prime minister is Anthony Albanese, the recent bilateral spats are more every day, and the gesture of welcome from the Indonesian president was a bike ride through the lush grounds of the Bogor Palace.
Jokowi (as Widodo is popularly known) and Albanese have met each other before, but Monday was their first face-to-face encounter as peers. As he entered the grounds of the Bogor Palace, Albanese looked like he might burst with joy at the moment he found himself – two weeks a prime minister, crawling up the forecourt of the Bogor Palace in a motorcade.
Australian officials say the new Labor prime minister was deeply touched by the president’s bicycle gesture, which referenced the humble beginnings of the two leaders. This was the first time this particular gesture had been offered to a foreign leader.
The Indonesian president is not from an elite background. He began his political career in local government and rose to national prominence – rather like his Australian guest, who organized his first grassroots political campaign in public housing in Sydney before he had entered his teens, graduated as an inner city activist, and then climbed Labor’s ranks right to the top.
Australian officials told traveling reporters Albanese understood the cultural significance of bicycles in Indonesia because many Indonesians from humble beginnings use bicycles for their lives and livelihoods.
The two leaders greeted each other warmly on Monday morning. Before the bicycles appeared, they stepped through the expected ceremonial formalities – marching bands, 19-gun salutes.
Fortunately, there was no lycra. Jokowi and Albanese discarded their suit jackets and ties. Albanese tucked his suit pants into his socks.
Jokowi jumped on his bike elegantly and took off at a very leisurely pace. Albanese mounted his bamboo bike less elegantly and wobbled during the opening minutes. I suspect the Australian’s problem wasn’t rusty bike technique, although it could have been. Rather, the hesitation looked more like Albanese was used to set out on a bike at a faster pace.
Having been granted such a significant and personal gesture by the president, the Australian visitor could not respond by sprinting at a cracking pace. The host needed to set the speed, and the visitor needed to accommodate it.
Welcome to Indonesia, Anthony Albanese. Welcome to the intricacies of high-stakes relationships with neighbors.
Welcome to a moment in regional history where historical alliances are finely balanced. China is testing more muscular and transactional diplomacy designed to telegraph, rather than obscure or apologize for, its escalating hard power.
As Albanese and Jokowi gripped and grinned, a palpable threat hung over our shared region, and in our age of escalating strategic competition, shuttle diplomacy is accelerating. In the last 24 hours, Albanese had to speak to Timor-Leste after our near neighbor became the latest regional country to sign a batch of new agreements with China during the regime’s recent hearts and minds tour of the Indo-Pacific. Things were moving so rapidly that he had to have that conversation in-flight.
It is also unclear whether or not the new foreign minister, Penny Wong, has had time to unpack the bag she packed immediately after becoming foreign minister.
Jakarta is Wong’s fourth international trip in two weeks – projecting Australia’s intention to match China for visibility in the region – an important structural shift after the change of government in Canberra. Wong met her Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, shortly after she arrived in Jakarta on Sunday night.
Monday’s welcome gesture from Jokowi might have been thoughtful and very personal, but it was also an apt realpolitik metaphor.
The moment the Indonesians staged was a couple of democratic leaders trying to set and maintain a common pace in real-time, with everybody watching, amid all the current geostrategic complexity.
If that’s our shared moment, and it is, there will be wobbles. Sometimes the path narrows or climbs unexpectedly. Sometimes, one or another leader will set the pace. Sometimes, one or other leaders won’t be happy about that.
Jokowi was impressed enough with Albanese’s bicycle technique after Monday’s roll-through in the palace grounds to gift Australia’s prime minister the machine.
Some bamboo bikes in Europe have frames that light up in the dark. It is unclear whether Albanese’s Indonesian gift possesses the same magic. Still, the Labor leader might dare to hope his more experienced host has hagiven himllumination in dangerous times.