As President Susilo Bambang Yu-dhoyono skipped the recent eighth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Brussels and a series of other multilateral forums in the US, speculation has emerged that he was deliberately avoiding the meetings.
The speculation was particularly pronounced as Yudhoyono has been scheduled to visit the Netherlands from Oct. 5 to 8, just after the closing of the two-day ASEM meeting on Tuesday. If he could visit Europe to meet Queen Beatrix, why could he not make it to the European and Asian leaders’ meeting in Brussels?
Presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said Yudhoyono had not planned to attend the ASEM meeting because he had already arranged the meeting with the Queen, who had extended an invitation to Yudhoyono, four years ago.
“The meeting in Brussels is too close to the meeting in the Netherlands. Taking into consideration that we need a break between one meeting and the next, there would be little chance for us to make it to both meetings,” he said.
“But this does not mean the President has little regard for the ASEM meeting,” he said.
The ASEM meeting is attended by a delegation led by Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.
Yudhoyono had also skipped the second US-ASEAN meeting in Washington two weeks ago, saying he could not make it because the invitation came too late at a time when he was preoccupied with several domestic issues.
Several experts said his absences may have been a result of his disagreement with several Western policies. The US has recently lobbied ASEAN countries to be tough against China over the South China Sea dispute, and Europe has continually voiced concerns over the poor human rights record in Myanmar.
ASEAN leaders have refused to follow the US in terms of their approach to resolving tensions with Beijing, toning down the finger-pointing statements sought by the US that were aimed at addressing China’s aggressive activities in the disputed waters.
Since Washington had tried in vain to split ASEAN’s attention over the South China Sea dispute with China, Yudhoyono’s minister announced last week that Yudhoyono planned to go to China before the end of the month.
Syamsul Hadi of the University of Indonesia said Yudhoyono’s absence from the US and Brussels, and decision to go to China and the Netherlands had hinted that this was more than simply conflicting schedules.
“He may be trying to distance himself or, in this case, maintain a balance rather than swinging toward the West or toward China,” he said. “Indonesia does not want to be in the middle of a war between China and the US or the West against any of its adversaries elsewhere in Asia,” Syamsul said.
The ASEM meeting could have been more important for Yudho-yono to attend than the Netherlands meeting, especially since the Netherlands has yet to form a coalition government after its elections.
Meanwhile, ASEM has become a forum for leaders to strengthen their positions prior to the G20 summit in South Korea next month.
Bonggas Adhi Chandra, a lecturer at Parahyangan Catholic University, Bandung, said the President’s absence would not hurt his image.
“Every president can set their own priorities, and I think other leaders understand that,” he said.