Indonesia: A Priority Partner for Canada

The original version of this op-ed was published in the Ottawa Citizen on August 7, 2014.

By John Baird

When I travel to places like China and the U.S.A. as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Canadians instinctively understand the importance of these visits. Canada’s cooperation with these world powers is vital to our nation’s prosperity and security. The welder in Windsor and the millwright in Fort McMurray can appreciate that their livelihoods are connected to these huge economic powers outside our borders.

The simple fact is that Canada cannot rely solely on a few huge partners for our economic wellbeing. That’s why Prime Minister Harper and I have made it a priority to foster beneficial relationships with the economies of the future. To paraphrase “The Great One,” we’re looking at where the puck is going, not where it is.

For Canada, one of the most important countries down-ice is Indonesia, where I landed yesterday for my fourth visit since becoming Foreign Minister.

This visit is special. On Monday night, I had the honour of being the first foreign minister to meet with Indonesia’s newly elected president, Joko Widodo.

A meeting like this proves how close our two countries are becoming. You just need to glance at the numbers to understand why it’s important.

Indonesia is made up of 17,000 islands spanning one sixth of the world’s circumference. Some 700 languages are spoken there, and it is home to 250 million people. By 2030, Indonesia’s economy will be the seventh-largest on the planet.

These are statistics that Canada cannot ignore.

Other facts and figures make it clearer why this is a relationship built on more than mutual economic benefit. It’s a friendship based on shared values.

Over 70 percent of the 190 million registered voters turned out last month for Indonesia’s third direct presidential elections, including 67 million first-time voters. I admire the fact that Indonesians have embraced democratic, tolerant values since the beginning of the Reformasi period in 1998.

And rounding out its democratic principles are a vibrant civil society, a free press and an enormous online and social media presence (Indonesia ranks fourth in the world in the number of Facebook and Twitter users).

Nobody better represents this Indonesia than Joko Widodo, a man with humble beginnings and without the military establishment connections typical of previous Indonesian presidents. President-elect Widodo is a new generation of leader, one who is inclined to open the windows and doors to the halls of power via social media. How refreshing it is that from a legacy of regional authoritarianism, the people are demanding more democracy, not less.

Canada’s history of cooperation with Indonesia can be traced back to Indonesia’s independence in 1945. Canada recognized Indonesia’s significance then, with our diplomats playing a leading role in supporting the fledgling country at the United Nations.

For me, Indonesia’s importance registered in 2011, when I was still a freshman foreign minister. During one of my first trips abroad, I attended the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Post-Ministerial Conference in Bali. There, I first met the current Indonesian foreign minister, and now my friend, Marty Natalegawa.

During our meeting, peering at me through his distinctive glasses, Marty had one message to convey: it was time for Canada to play a bigger role in ASEAN.

What Marty proceeded to impress upon me was Indonesia’s and ASEAN’s vital importance to Canada. In a region of competing economic systems, ASEAN and Indonesia are central players in expanding trade liberalization.

I took his advice to heart. Since then, Canada has been there for ASEAN, contributing to multiple security and democratic initiatives. Yesterday, in Jakarta, I was honoured to sit down with the ASEAN Secretary-General at ASEAN headquarters, a first for a Canadian foreign minister. And to ensure that this level of engagement continues, I announced that Canada will appoint an ambassador dedicated to the organization.

The proof of our economic engagement with Indonesia and ASEAN is in the investment. Canadian businesses are ever more interested in what the region has to offer. Indonesia is a major purchaser of Canadian-made aircraft, a destination for Canadian investment in extractive industries and a leading market for BlackBerry. The country is resource rich with a young workforce, and its economy is growing fast. And as a leader in ASEAN, Indonesia can open the door for Canada to other regional markets.

Canada already has a head start: Indonesia is the only large country where we enjoy a trade surplus.

Of course, like every other country, Indonesia has its challenges. But I respect the fact that Indonesian leaders are always willing to engage with us as partners.

I am proud of the relationship we’ve built, and I hope that our partnership with the beautiful, historic country will continue to flourish.

A new chapter is beginning in Indonesia. In Canada, it has a willing and grateful teammate ready to tackle the challenges of international affairs and work toward the mutual prosperity of our peoples.