Indonesia’s warming relations with Australia faced new challenges this week as the COVID-19 outbreak forced Jakarta to further restrict entry and Canberra to close down its borders, putting many lucrative partnership projects on hold while the two governments scramble to ensure the safety of their citizens.
Indonesia announced on Tuesday a temporary suspension of its visa-exemption facilities for all foreign visitors including Australians, which came into effect on Friday. From that point onward, foreigners who want to travel to Indonesia must provide vetted health documents when applying from an overseas mission.
Various officials have insisted that the policies introduced in response to the coronavirus outbreak will be temporary.
Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Thursday an unprecedented ban on entry for non-residents coming to Australia, effective from 9 p.m. on Friday, in a move aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19 infections.
Indonesia and Australia have agreed on various new projects through the recently ratified Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) and the accompanying 2020-2024 plan of action that will serve as a guideline for the economic deal.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo visited Canberra in early January on his last trip abroad before the coronavirus outbreak began to spread in the region.
International trade law lecturer at Monash Business School, Giovanni De Lieto, said that just like all other bilateral relationships, Australia’s travel ban would put on hold any medium- to long-term economic partnership projects.
He said that in the short term it was people who would be the most affected.
“Indonesian migrant workers and professionals with jobs, assets and interests in Australia may live in limbo as they are locked in or out of Australia for an indefinite period of time,” he told The Jakarta Post on Friday.
The Foreign Ministry’s director for East Asia and Pacific affairs, Santo Darmosumarto, said that as of late 2019 there were approximately 77,500 Indonesians living and working in Australia.
“It is indeed a concern for us, but we believe that what Australia decides is done with full responsibility. In this regard, various policies that will be taken by the government of Australia will always be communicated to us beforehand,” he told reporters on Thursday.
Some 681 people in Australia have tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, with five deaths, according to data compiled by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. Meanwhile, the latest data from the Health Ministry recorded 369 confirmed cases in Indonesia, with 32 deaths as of Friday afternoon.
Santo said that the Indonesian missions in Australia had swapped notes with their counterparts about policy directives, including the various Australian policies that would affect them.
“Hopefully our citizens in Australia are aware about the Australian government’s effort to ‘flatten the curve’ in managing the spread of COVID-19,” he said.
Ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah said there was always going to be the potential that Indonesian citizens overseas would experience a lockdown, but he underlined the fact that travelers had a window of opportunity between Tuesday and Friday to sort out their return.
De Lieto said that problems could arise especially for Indonesians holding temporary visas because the Australian government had yet to explain what would happen to those whose visas expire in the meantime and prevent them from leaving the country or returning to Indonesia.
“Also, temporary migrants have only very limited access to social security benefits and so they are most vulnerable in this downturn. But the same applies to migrants from everywhere, irrespective of their origin country,” he said.
The Melbourne-based researcher said that most people had already begun to feel the impact of the stock market crash caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
“If the crisis lasts for longer and leads to shutting down borders for more than a few months, the damage and disruption to global supply chains and financial markets that underpin them will become structural and will likely be irreversible in the form that we know today,” he said.