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Jakarta Post

PM Suga’s Indo-Pacific initiative is alarming for RI and region

  • Kornelius Purba

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Mon, October 19, 2020   /   07:12 am
PM Suga’s Indo-Pacific initiative is alarming for RI and region Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greet prior to their meeting at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, Japan on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. (Reuters/Charly Triballeau)

Deputy Foreign Minister Mahendra Siregar rebuked Japan last Wednesday, just one day after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to explain his two-day visit to Jakarta, which will start tomorrow. During the telephone conversation, the prime minister, among others, briefed Jokowi about his Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative. Mahendra complained that Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, had done almost nothing in the regional effort to beat the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Japanese Embassy’s official statement, during the 10-minute talk, PM Suga promoted his first diplomatic initiative. He also ensured Jokowi that his government “fully supports the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP)”. The ASEAN Outlook was initiated by Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi and later adopted by the regional trading bloc. There is no further explanation on what Japan will do to make the FOIP and AOIP platforms work in sync.

But as reported by international and Japanese media, the newly elected PM was very eager to accelerate realization of his FOIP agenda, which he inherits from his successor Shinzo Abe. It seems that Suga is confident that with the support of the United States and other major countries, it will be easier for him to persuade ASEAN members to join their front against China.

On Oct. 6, Suga opened a foreign ministerial meeting of four Indo-Pacific nations – Australia, India, Japan and the US, known as the Quad – in Tokyo. The Associated Press quoted Suga as saying that the FOIP security and economic initiative was more important than ever amid challenges from the coronavirus pandemic.

Apart from Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar were in attendance.

The four countries have their own problems with China, with Washington the fiercest in attacking Beijing. Australia, known as the US deputy sheriff in the Pacific, is also ready for a trade war with China, while India is embroiled in border conflicts with China.

However, Japan was very cautious by ending the Quad meeting without any joint statement.

Mahendra, while officiating the “Economic Dashboard: Japan-Indonesia Partnership Lounge” on Wednesday, questioned Japan’s commitment to deepening the relationship with Indonesia.

Mahendra is a career diplomat who has held various key posts such as deputy finance minister, deputy trade minister, head of the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) and Indonesian ambassador to the US.

Knowing his vast experience as a bureaucrat and diplomat, Mahendra must be confident in his criticism and to some extent was representing the government’s growing impatience and frustration by the slow pace of Indonesia-Japan bilateral relations, especially during the pandemic.

As quoted by Kompas daily, Mahendra questioned the direction of the long-standing strategic partnership between Indonesia and Japan during the pandemic.

“The strategic relations, which are expected to become more prominent during the pandemic, are almost invisible,” he said.

“As if missing in action, there is nothing concrete in vaccine development in terms of expanding Indonesia’s capacity in the pharmaceutical and medicine industries. This is also happening with health equipment and the development of a travel corridor agreement,” said Mahendra.

Mahendra also criticized the Japanese government for being inactive as Japanese companies planned to relocate from China recently. There are only a few Japanese firms moving to Indonesia, which Mahendra said did not reflect the strong 60-year-old relationship between the two countries.

Gajah berkelahi dengan gajah, pelanduk mati di tengah (Elephants fight, mousedeer stampede to death in the middle), so goes the old Indonesian proverb. It may reflect the anxiety of people in Southeast Asia in the wake of the determination of Japan, the US, India and Australia to battle China in their own ways. The FOIP initiative ignores the livelihood of the 10 ASEAN members.

For Indonesia, the de facto leader and the largest member of ASEAN, the Quad plan is alarming. International media and scholars believe that ASEAN members are too scared to face China because of its economic and military might, although such a view is oversimplifying the current geopolitical landscape.

Before flying to Jakarta, PM Suga will meet with Vietnamese leaders. Hanoi, which holds a rotating ASEAN chair post, will host the East Asian Summit next month. It is very likely that Suga, in his first overseas trip as PM, would convince the two ASEAN countries on his FOIP initiative before meeting the rest of the ASEAN leaders. The annual East Asia Summit will also invite China, the US and other strategic partners of ASEAN, which this time around will be held virtually.

Indonesia and ASEAN have demanded the regional grouping to play a central role in the implementation of the AOIP, which is based on openness, transparency, inclusivity and respect for international law in enhancing mutual trust and benefit. ASEAN wants to change the rivalry into cooperation and turn a trust deficit into strategic trust.

The Quad’s version of Indo-Pacific cooperation is alarming for Indonesia and ASEAN. It will only generate more sources of security instability and political tension in the region at a time when Southeast Asian nations are preoccupied by the deadly pandemic.

Welcome to Jakarta, Prime Minister Suga. You visit the Japanese-constructed Jakarta MRT, but why don't you visit also Patimban seaport construction project in West Java, which is almost complete. The two strategic projects reflect the past, current and future cooperation between the two countries after all.


Senior editor at The Jakarta Post