Indonesia President Joko Widodo's declaration on the floor of the House of Representatives on Monday that "Australia is Indonesia's closest friend" has given us pause for thought.
Last year, when asked in a Lowy Institute poll who our best friend in the world was, only 1 per cent of Australians chose Indonesia. In 2016 a survey commissioned by the Australia-Indonesia Centre at Monash University found that while 66 per cent of Indonesians surveyed considered Australia a good neighbour, the number of Australians who felt the same way stood at just 29 per cent.
"The distance to be traversed in building a closer relationship between the two countries is significant – particularly from the Australian side," the researchers concluded.
Mr Joko came to Canberra this week bearing a "gift" – the Indonesian parliament's approval of the trade deal between our two countries. Given the growth expectations surrounding Indonesia – forecast to be the fourth-largest economy in the world by 2050 – it has long been recognised by our political and business classes that trade relations have not met their potential. But an approach that views our neighbour only in terms of dollars and cents, or sees trade with Indonesia as a hedge against hard times elsewhere, will be insufficient to bridge the relationship gap.
Mr Joko also came and spoke in favour of international cooperation on trade, combating extremism and protecting the environment. Some of his rhetoric seemed at odds with Indonesia's domestic political reality, but Australians should be familiar with that dissonance, given our own track record on climate change and reconciliation.
The reason that our deal with Jakarta is called a "comprehensive economic partnership agreement" and not a free trade one is that many Indonesians associate free trade with colonial-era domination and resource exploitation. The key to improving ties lies in acknowledging and addressing such fears, as well as our own.
Indonesians look at us and see a far wealthier nation – we look at them and see a far more populous one. When Indonesians ask us for a more liberal approach to visas for their citizens and asylum seekers, they touch upon our underlying anxieties about immigration numbers and Islamist extremism.
When we talk to Indonesians about liberalisation – whether in trade or human rights – they worry about domestic prosperity and the integrity of the nation, citing our role in securing East Timorese independence and those Australians who support West Papuan self-determination, represented in the chamber on Monday by Greens leader Adam Bandt (Mr Joko shook his hand).
Nearly 73 years ago, Ben Chifley's government stepped out of Australia's comfort zone as a Western outpost and played a key role in winning recognition for the fledgling Republic of Indonesia and ending Dutch colonial rule. When the United Nations asked the Indonesians who should represent them in peace talks to end their conflict with the Dutch, they chose us.
It is time for us to choose Indonesia and its people and to back its leaders when they step outside of their comfort zone. If we can bridge the gap and persuade Jakarta to take bolder steps, such as joining us in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and addressing Papuan grievances constructively, it would benefit not only our two nations but a wider world riven by doubts over the merits of immigration, free trade and multilateral agreements. That would make us friends indeed.