Fri, 12 May 2000

Circumstances demand foreign minister stay close to Gus Dur

Foreign minister Alwi Shihab has been under fire from critics, who have charged he has spent too much time with President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) and too little on foreign affairs. Political analyst Jusuf Wanandi thinks rare political circumstances in Indonesia's transitional period have forced the minister to be always in close touch with the President.

Question: Critics of the minister, including legislators, have said Alwi Shihab spends too much time at the palace and not enough at his own ministry. Others have said most of the minister's comments are on domestic issues and that it is not clear whether the former Harvard scholar has a good grasp of foreign policy issues.

Answer: One has to remember that this is a transitional period in Indonesia and one in which the country is plagued with many problems. As a close confidant of Gus Dur, minister Alwi Shihab has often been asked to give feedback. So it is a natural thing to do for Gus Dur. This explains why the minister spends such a lot of his time at the presidential palace rather than at his own ministry.

Q: On what issues is Gus Dur seeking advice from Alwi?

A: Numerous issues, including domestic and foreign ones. Also in matters pertaining to the management of the government.

Of course, in this era of globalization the line between domestic and foreign issues is becoming blurred. It has become mixed. Our domestic politics are influenced by foreign affairs and vice versa.

Therefore, we should learn to accept Alwi Shihab's mastering of domestic issues in addition to foreign ones.

Also, in this early period of the Gus Dur regime, one of the most important things for him to do is to restore Indonesia's standing and place among the international community.

Why? Because too many things happened during the previous regimes that tarnished Indonesia's previously good name abroad, including human rights violations in East Timor during the Habibie government. Gus Dur is trying to mend the image of Indonesia, which has gone down the drain.

Q: And that's why Gus Dur makes a lot of trips abroad ...

A: Yes, he is aiming to win over the trust of the international community, and, by so doing, hopefully investors will make their way back to Indonesia.

So we should never trivialize Gus Dur's efforts. He is actually laying a new groundwork in international relations and is playing a pivotal role in this respect. As the foreign minister, Alwi Shihab would obviously support this role because the key figure in all these efforts is the President himself.

Q: It seems that the peculiar circumstances we are experiencing now are among the reasons why Alwi is always in rapport with Gus Dur...

A: Yes, if the minister is often seen with the President it is for reasons of credibility, as the President is the one trusted by the international community.

But, of course, Alwi is trying to implement Gus Dur's ideas. The recent agreements and cooperation pacts with China, South Korea and the Middle East, for example, I think are Gus Dur's ideas.

Once the transitional period is over, there is no reason whatsoever why Alwi should not start consolidating the foreign affairs ministry. In that sense, the criticism tabled by the legislators holds some truth.

The ministry is the main instrument in diplomacy, so we can not just ignore it. Although in a comprehensive diplomacy the foreign affairs ministry is only one of the elements. The ministry, which has yet to be consolidated, has been somewhat neglected because the minister is so preoccupied. So Alwi's next step, say toward the end of this year, should be -- and I know he has thought this over -- to set up an education program for our young diplomats.

Q: How does foreign affairs policy under Gus Dur differ from that of previous regimes?

A: Firstly, Gus Dur's attention to South Asia. India and the subcontinent is an area which we practically paid no attention to in the past.

Secondly, Middle Eastern countries with whom we have emotional ties because of our similar religions, because of our struggle for independence from colonialism, things related to nationalism and also for economic reasons.

I think our attention paid to these countries has never been so great.

Q: What about South-South cooperation?

A: Gus Dur pays a great deal of attention to this issue because he is very concerned about the poor, both locally and globally. His recent visit to Cuba, for example, attested to this. The South countries are going to meet in Cairo and I think Gus Dur will attend too.

Gus Dur's conception in respect to developing countries is to prevent rich countries from becoming the sole institutional arbiter in deciding the rules of the game in this global economy. This is what Gus Dur supports.

Q: And what about his initiative for an Indonesia-India-China axis?

A: Many misunderstood this as an antiwestern alliance. There is no antiwestern motive at all in this initiative. What Gus Dur is aiming for was to amend an oversight. In the past, our diplomatic relations with India and China should have been closer since both of them are big countries. The same goes with Japan, and in the ASEAN plus three arrangement which includes Japan, South Korea and China. Gus Dur's view is correct.

So it is not an alliance, first of all. This term tends to a narrow meaning, in the sense of a military pact or politics like the United States and Japan's alliance, for example. This is not the case (with Gus Dur's idea). He simply meant closer cooperation in the fields of economy and politics. The mechanism for it is in place, which is the ASEAN 10 plus three. They are going to have their third summit in November. (hbk)