Adviser to the Indonesian foreign minister for political and security affairs
After traveling for 13 hours, plus staying overnight in Suva, Fiji, I arrived on March 14 in Funafuti, Tuvalu, as a special envoy of Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi. I was assigned to ensure the participation of high ranking officials from the government of Tuvalu in the Indonesia-South Pacific Forum (ISPF) in Jakarta on March 21.
The long flight and a rare opportunity to visit island states in the Pacific Ocean provided a good chance to reflect on Indonesia’s foreign policy under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and the strategic diplomatic conduct under minister Retno.
Quite frankly, a tendency to label Indonesian foreign policy under President Jokowi as lackluster and deficient in new strategic ideas prompted me to look carefully at the foreign policy over the past four years.
In the public domain, there is a suggestion that lately Indonesia’s interest in playing a leading role at regional and global levels is weakening. This argument is built on what seems to be President Jokowi’s selective attendance at international summits.
His absence at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is often argued as an example of such failings. His emphasis for diplomacy to bring more tangible benefits for Indonesia, particularly in the trade and investment sectors, is also perceived as oversimplification in interstate relations.
Foreign policy should be seen in its totality or comprehensiveness within which different sets of actors contribute, in their respective capacity, to the attainment of any diplomatic objective.
Hence, the presence or lack of presence of the Indonesian President at the UNGA, is not a determining variable to assess the level of activism in Indonesian foreign policy and diplomacy.
Suffice to say that there are numerous studies on the efficacy of summitry as a diplomatic means.
There are cases where a summit can help break an impasse, as shown during the series of summits in the 1980s between former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev and former United States president Ronald Reagan to bring the nuclear arms race under control.
In contrast, the two series of summits in Singapore and Hanoi between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have been unable to produce tangible results. They carry more symbolism of a growing personal relationship between the two leaders. Unfortunately, the summit in Hanoi which was supposedly an opportunity for President Trump to win accolades was clouded with news of progress on the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.
In fact, any prospect of a resolution to the Korean Peninsula conflict cannot be disentangled from competition for influence between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region. The region is witnessing a new surge in competition for sphere of influence between the two major powers; a reminder of old contests for supremacy or the great power competition during the Cold War.
Indo-Pacific has become the new mantra in conceptualizing the complex dynamic and the way forward in the Asia-Pacific region; alas from various kinds of lenses. Among the many strands of the Indo-Pacific conception, countries in the region — big or small — are encouraged to shelter in one of the two big “tents”, under the US (Quad) or China.
The competition for influence is also a spin-off from the ongoing contest of ideas of governance at global level, between the liberal international order (the West) and the so-called authoritarian powers (mostly referring to China and Russia). It is also predominantly a contest of development model between the international economic order (Washington Consensus) and the Chinese economic model (Beijing Consensus).
During the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada, Nov. 18, 2018, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. stressed “the importance of maintaining a unified alliance structure, as a means of countering emerging threats and preserving democratic values globally”. The statement is a clear pronouncement of a dividing line between democracy and authoritarian powers.
Indonesia is concerned that the contending proposal for a new regional construct will only create division among countries in the region. To that end, Indonesia engages in a series of dialogues with various countries and regional players, including ASEAN, as well as with relevant stakeholders to find a synergy and common denominators in the Indo-Pacific conception.
The holding of the High-Level Dialogue on Indo-Pacific on March 20 in Jakarta served that very purpose. Government officials from 16 countries, members of the East Asia Summit, took part in the dialogue. Moreover, the ISPF is part and parcel of Indonesia’s diplomatic overtures in the Asia-Pacific region within the framework of Indonesia’s strategic outlook of the Indo-Pacific.
Tuvalu is a case in point, where an island state in the South Pacific becomes an arena for competition among foreign actors over time. The airstrip in Funafuti was built by the US during the Second World War, to provide the allies with a stronghold against the Japanese war campaign in the Pacific theater. Taiwan has opened a so-called embassy in Funafuti and helped build a government office building and disburse a large amount of development assistance.
Hence, it is a stark reminder of deep-seated animosity between China and Taiwan, beyond the Taiwan Strait.
Tuvalu and other island states in the Pacific, such as Kiribati and Nauru are also affected by climate change. My visit to Tuvalu has enabled me to witness firsthand their challenge in mitigating the adverse impact of climate change.
As an archipelagic country which is vulnerable to climate change, Indonesia shares their concern.
The ISPF provides Indonesia with a new vehicle to engage with countries in the South Pacific by focusing mainly on two priority areas. First, on infrastructure development — a precursor to better connectivity and economic progress.
Second, on blue economy — an important component for attaining sustainable economy and environmental protection.
Back to back with the ISPF, Indonesia organized a business forum.
The business forum would enable business communities from Indonesia and the South Pacific to compare notes on economic potential and discuss together ways and means to increase their economic engagements.
In a nutshell, Indonesian foreign policy and diplomacy under President Jokowi and under the stewardship of minister Retno continue to serve its very own purpose, namely promoting Indonesia’s national interests. In an era when global competition is prevalent, Indonesia will have to play a constructive role to find the right balance.
As a final thought, today’s diplomacy is part of a cyclical process, building on the milestones of the long years of diplomatic conduct and derived from the central tenets of Indonesian foreign policy stipulated in the preamble to the Indonesian Constitution.
The writer is adviser to the Indonesian foreign minister for political and security affairs and former Indonesian ambassador to Canada.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.