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Reviving Trepang Diplomacy in the Australia-Indonesia Trade Relationship

14 Jul 2023
By Ridvan Kilic
Australia and Indonesia are committed to working in partnership to reduce poverty and promote regional peace, stability and prosperity. Source: Josh Estey/

The historic Makassan-Yolngu relationship between Indonesian fishermen and Australian First Nations peoples is often overlooked. In moving forward, acknowledging and reviving trepang diplomacy is crucial for the strengthening of the modern-day Australia-Indonesia trade relationship.

Earlier this month, Indonesian President Jokowi Widodo caught up with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Sydney, where the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to implement the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) in full. Following the talks, Albanese announced that Indonesian e-passport holders will have immediate access to Australian SmartGates. This announcement was welcomed by Jokowi. The new Australian visa offerings for Indonesians could expand business and commercial links between Australia and Indonesia.

Albanese has accepted that Australia needs to boost its chronically underperforming trade relationship with its largest neighbour. Indonesia is currently Australia’s 14th largest trading partner. Current two-way trade between Australia and Indonesia is worth AUD$18.35 billion. Even smaller ASEAN countries like Singapore and Malaysia are both ahead of Indonesia in Australia’s top two-way trading partners list. Today, Indonesia is on the cusp of becoming a global economic powerhouse and is predicted to become the fourth-largest economy in the world by 2050. Indonesia successfully hosted last year’s G20 summit in Bali and the country’s rapidly rising middle class is now over 50 million.

But what is often overlooked in Australia’s engagement with Indonesia is the historic Makassan-Yolngu relationship. Long before European settlement in Australia, Makassan-Indonesian trepangers (fishermen) from the Indonesian city of Makassar visited the coast of northern Australia. Between 1600 to 1907, the trepangers collected and processed trepang (sea cucumber) here, selling the valuable commodity to Chinese merchants. The Makassan trepangers were mostly Muslim men of ethnic Makassarese, Buginese, and Malay backgrounds. They are also considered the first people to introduce Islam to Australia. During these visits, deep economic and cultural ties were established between the Makassans and the Yolngu people of Arnhem land. This subsequently made the Makassan Indonesians Australia’s first and oldest recorded trading partner.

During this period, Indonesian trepangers often traded with the local Yolngu First Nations people for trepang in exchange for goods such as calico, cloth, tobacco, and tamarind. The Makassans also introduced knives, axes, and metal blades to northern Australia, which transformed everyday life for the Yolngu people. According to anthropologist John Bradley, one of the primary reasons for the success of the Makassan-Yolngu trade relationship is because “it was fair – there was no racial judgment, no race policy.” Last year, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney emphasised the successful Makassan-Yolngu economic relationship, stating that “the trade relationship between the Yolngu people and the Makassans marked the beginning of interactions from Aboriginal people on the north coast of Australia with the outside world.”

Furthermore, the strong cultural ties between the Makassans and the First Nations people of northern Australia had a profound impact on local Indigenous culture. The Makassan presence influenced the Yolngu people’s way of life, and subsequently led to the emergence of a specialised contact language known as the Makassan language. It is a Creole Malay language that has been used as the language of commerce in Makassar for centuries. The language was also used effectively between speakers of Yolngu-Matha languages and Austronesian languages in the Indo-Australian archipelago to conduct trade.

Today, the language continues to have a lasting impact on the vocabulary of the Yolngu-Matha languages of northern Australia. The Makassan’s also married and fathered children with local Aboriginal women. Some of these families relocated to Indonesia with the Makassan-Muslim trepangers.

This shared history has received limited official attention and importance from Australia in its engagement with Indonesia. With that being said, the recent decision by the Albanese Government to engage with a new First Nations foreign policy gives Canberra a chance to embed the Yolngu people’s unique knowledge and experiences into its bilateral and trade relationship with Indonesia. In March, Justin Mohamed was announced as Australia’s inaugural Ambassador for First Nations people. Mohamed will be responsible for leading efforts to incorporate the First Nations policy across the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and head an Office of First Nations Engagement within the department. DFAT aims to embed the unique experiences and perspectives of First Nations Australians into Australia’s approach to foreign affairs.

Thus, Australia’s engagement with Indonesia is likely to be served well with the inclusion of Aboriginal Australian relationalism in its trade relationship with Indonesia. Since 2004, the Lowy Institute poll has shown that Australian attitudes towards Indonesia have been at best lukewarm and at worst, they lurk suspicion. Cultural misapprehensions continue to hamper bilateral relations and contribute to a majority of Australians still lacking widespread knowledge of Indonesians. This extends to parts of the Australian business community, where a transactional relationship with Indonesia is too often the focus. But Indonesia is not like Australia’s other Asian trading partners, such as China, meaning a “we sell, they buy” approach will not work. A relational approach is more likely to succeed, embracing principles of mutual respect, co-development, and reciprocity. Such a relational approach has been ingrained in both Aboriginal Australian and Indonesian cultures for centuries and was a key feature in the Makassan-Yolngu trade relationship. Indonesians also highly value potential business partners that make genuine efforts to build interpersonal relationships with them.

In his trip to Indonesia last year, Anthony Albanese declared that the country is a centrepiece of his government’s trade diversification policy away from China. At present, China is Australia’s largest trading partner and Canberra is trying to end its economic overreliance on the country. In recent years, China has run an economic coercion campaign against Australia, leading trade bans on more than AUD$20 billion of Australian exports. Albanese also backed the G7’s recent statement calling out China’s economic coercion. But just 250 Australian companies have a presence in Indonesia today, in contrast to more than 3,000 Australian companies that have a presence in China.

All this suggests that Australia has much more room to develop its trade ties with Indonesia, a prospect that will undoubtedly be aided by formally instilling Makassan-Yolngu relationalism in its engagement with Indonesia. One way it can do this is by appointing inaugural First Nations attachés across all of its diplomatic missions in Indonesia, working under DFAT’s Office of First Nations Engagement. The Office could work in close partnership with the Austrade offices in Indonesia.

One proposal, then, is that such attachés should be given a substantive role in driving Australia’s public and commercial diplomatic efforts in Indonesia. This could also include the involvement of senior advisers with specialised knowledge and perspectives of the Makassan-Yolngu trade relationship. For Canberra, this specialised knowledge could prove invaluable in its future dealings and trade negotiations with the Indonesians. The strong presence of authentic First Nations voices at the negotiation table will also be positively received by Indonesians. The attachés could provide Australian businesses in Indonesia with knowledge and input about Indonesian business culture and relationalism. Ultimately, the revival of trepang diplomacy can yet again strengthen trade and cultural exchange between Indonesia and Australia

Ridvan Kilic is a Master of International Relations student at La Trobe University. His research interests include the Australia-Indonesia bilateral relationship, Indonesian foreign policy, and domestic affairs, ASEAN, the Quad, and the Indonesian diaspora community. Ridvan’s primary focus is Indonesia, Australia, ASEAN regionalism, and the Indo-Pacific.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.