Wed, 29 Nov 2000

Indonesian foreign policy is in total disarray

It is hard to find a pattern in foreign policy nowadays, writes political analyst J. Soedjati Djiwandono.

JAKARTA (JP): Shortly after his election, President Abdurrahman Wahid went on his first foreign tour to visit primarily the majority of Southeast Asian capitals.

Soon, however, the President pondered the possibility of forging an Asian triangular alliance with India and China. But such a triangular alliance would only invite problems from the start because of the delicate relations between India and Pakistan, and between India and China.

Then for a time there were signs that he was inclined toward orientation to the Middle East. What used to be designated as the "cornerstone" of Indonesia's foreign policy seems to have been abandoned. In fact, preoccupation with the prolonged multidimensional crisis in the country, foreign policy seems to have been put on the back burner.

Indeed, it is unfashionable and perhaps controversial nowadays to talk about Soeharto's rule in a favorable light. However, if there was any success in Soeharto's policy, it was in the field of foreign policy, particularly with respect to Southeast Asia.

Soeharto was the man who brought an end to Sukarno's adventurous confrontation policy against Malaysia. This finally led to the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

With or without Soeharto, Indonesia's strategic interest is immediately linked to that of its neighbors, not only in the region of ASEAN proper, but also Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Indonesia has been treated more or less first among equals within ASEAN. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore said publicly on occasions that the regional stability of Southeast Asia was primarily due to the leadership of president Soeharto. This explained the concern among ASEAN leaders, notably Lee Kuan Yew himself, over the issue of leadership succession years before president Soeharto's resignation.

Yet, the visit by Lee Kuan Yew to Malaysia earlier this year, the first in a decade, seems to have been of significance loss to Indonesian leaders. Singapore will continue to depend on Malaysia, perhaps now more than ever, particularly for a clean water supply.

Did Lee Kuan Yew's visit signify that Indonesia was no longer seen as the pivot of regional security in Southeast Asia, and no longer first among equals?

Indeed, whoever happens to be president, Indonesia will be a key to regional stability. The region will not really care much about how democratic or undemocratic the leader in power might be at any given moment, as long as the country is not perceived as a source of threat to regional security.

President Sukarno probably managed to create the image of national unity in Indonesia and the impression that he was in full control of the country. But his personal and expansionist ambition as perceived by the region created fear of Indonesia being a serious source of threat to regional peace.

Now the whole world sees President Abdurrahman as the most democratically elected leader in Indonesia since independence, at least by Indonesian standards with a fundamentally defective constitution. In times of trouble like now, when Indonesia may become a source of threat to the security of its neighbors because of possible spillovers of its domestic problems, it should turn above all to its neighbors and strengthen its relations and cooperation with them.

Yet the present government does not seem to care much about the security concerns of our neighbors.

There seems to be no direction in Indonesia's foreign policy under the current government, particularly with a foreign minister of seemingly questionable competence.

And with the President's growling at Singapore and its leaders, particularly Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, the President simply blew it all. That he did it while still in Singapore, though within the Indonesian Embassy compound, indicates his lack of discretion and statesmanship as president of a big nation.

Goh Chok Tong's suggestion on the use of English as the official language for ASEAN is most sensible in the present system of globalization. But Abdurrahman, or Gus Dur, saw the proposal as a disregard of Indonesia. His alternative offer of Arabic stretches one's imagination too far.

His impulsive remark on what he regarded as Singapore's contemptuous attitude toward the Malays is virtually racist and clearly unfounded. Goh Chok Tong, the President argued, made mention of Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand, but not Indonesia. But the President ignored the fact that Brunei and Malaysia are Malay.

His accusation of Singapore's manipulation of its neighbors was just an indication of envy, jealousy and an inferiority complex. And his threat of joining Malaysia in controlling the flow of clean water to Singapore was a joke, when even in Jakarta the government is incapable of providing clean drinking water for its own population.

Moreover, Singapore's apparent attention to relations with Japan, China and South Korea, which irritated the President, was only appropriate since the summit was one of ASEAN+3, i.e. those three East Asian countries.

Did not the President know what he was doing in Singapore?

His suggestion of including East Timor (and Papua New Guinea) in ASEAN did not seem to have been well-considered, and ignores Indonesia's own bungling in the territory, whereas together with Portugal, Australia and the United Nations, it should assist in preparing the East Timorese for viable statehood.

His criticism of Singapore's defense arrangement with Australia and New Zealand without consulting Indonesia only indicated his disregard for its historical background.

The President may well continue to be his own foreign minister, especially now that day-to-day running of government has been entrusted to the Vice President. However, his foreign policy does not indicate a pattern, and the foreign minister looks more like his personal escort. Foreign policy is simply in disarray.

During his foreign visits the President has focused his diplomacy on inviting foreign investment by assuring his hosts, echoed by many Indonesian political and business leaders, that despite the crisis Indonesia remains promising for investment.

It remains safe also for foreign tourists. In this age of modern information and communication technology, however, it is not that easy to convince foreigners of a picture of Alice in Wonderland out of crisis-stricken Indonesia, where even many of its own citizens continue to live in uncertainty and fear.

In the face of the threat of national disintegration, he has also appealed to his hosts for their continued respect for Indonesia's integrity as a unitary state, refraining from supporting separatist movements simmering in some provinces.

This has led to a new style of Indonesia's foreign policy characterized by nationalistic jingoism aimed at rejecting "foreign interference" in Indonesia's domestic affairs, a defensive mechanism and a sign of a lack of self-confidence.

Indeed, respect for territorial integrity is an accepted principle of normal relations among nations. But it does not concern the issue of whether a nation is a unitary or federal state, or even whether it should split into smaller states, as long as peace and stability continue to prevail with no violence resulting in gross violations of human rights.

These would be the kind of "domestic affairs" that are today the concern of humankind, and thus the international community, which may well lead to "humanitarian intervention".

The paradigm of world politics is changing. In the old days of the Cold War, security was understood primarily in terms of states. Intervention was thus understood primarily in military terms. Now security is increasingly understood in human terms (human security).

Indonesia must enhance its credibility and respectability by putting its own house in order. Foreign policy begins at home.