Fri, 21 Mar 2003

`RI-U.S. ties remain intact despite war'

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Foreign minister Hassan Wirayuda believes that Indonesia's stance opposing the United States' decision to attack Iraq will not harm bilateral ties between the two countries as Washington is aware that Jakarta has to stick by its antiwar principles.

Hassan said on Thursday that the war concerned international affairs and was not a bilateral issue between Indonesia on the one side and the U.S. and its allies on the other.

"I believe that the United States, Britain and Australia view the problem as an international issue and not as bilateral problems between each of these countries and us," Hassan remarked.

"This is an international matter and is related to certain principles such as opposition to war and support for multilateralism."

Hassan was speaking to reporters after accompanying President Megawati Soekarnoputri during a press conference when she addressed the Iraq issue at the State Palace.

Hours after the first U.S. strike on Iraq, Megawati announced that Indonesia "strongly deplores" the attacks and called them "an act of aggression".

It was the strongest statement Indonesia has made against the U.S. in years. There have also been demands for the government to severe ties with Washington following the strikes.

Although acknowledging that keeping cordial relations with Washington was crucial for the ongoing economic recovery, Jakarta insisted on Thursday that the use of military force to disarm Iraq violated the principle of multilateralism.

"This country supports multilateralism and opposes any efforts to sideline the United Nations. This has been our stance since the beginning of the crisis," Hassan underlined.

Political analyst Juwono Sudarsono said Megawati's statement clearly reflected Jakarta's standpoint rejecting the war.

"The U.S. should have been aware that its attack on Iraq would illicit such a reaction," he told The Jakarta Post.

The U.S. strike on Baghdad, which began on Thursday morning, has once again placed Indonesia in a difficult position -- whether to put more weight on bilateral relations with the U.S. and its allies, or to respond to the demands of domestic constituents.

Washington's influence in the International Monetary Fund, from which Jakarta is seeking financial assistance, and the fact that it is one of the largest investors in the country, make it clear that it would be pointless to damage relations with the U.S.

Indonesia also greatly depends on the U.S. for military equipment and weaponry.

In 2001 when Afghanistan came under U.S. attack, newly appointed President Megawati merely said she was "gravely concerned" over the attack.

It was only after huge domestic pressure was brought to bear on her administration that Megawati dared to say she deplored the attack. Indonesia's stronger stance against the U.S. led to a period of uneasy relations between the two countries.

Analysts had expected that Megawati would be circumspect in responding to the U.S. attack on Iraq.

"We are fully aware of rising anxiety that the statement could damage ties between Indonesia and these countries, but at this point we have to underline our basic stance," Hassan stressed.

Ties between Jakarta and Washington slumped to their lowest ebb in the early 1960s during the administration of founding president Sukarno, who is Megawati's father.