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Jakarta Post

Has Jokowi put ASEAN on the sidelines?

  • Tantowi Yahya

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Mon, June 1, 2015   /  06:19 am

Recently there has been growing concern that foreign policy under President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo no longer considers ASEAN a priority while most nations in Southeast Asia expect ASEAN to play a bigger role in the future.

Indonesia, as the largest country in the region or '€œthe Big Brother'€, is expected to remain active in ASEAN to ensure its regional and international credibility. Without Indonesia'€™s active contribution, ASEAN will lose its relevance. Such is the concern of the regional diplomatic community that I sense.

President Jokowi'€™s foreign policy on ASEAN is not yet clear. Probably this is because the government is still relatively new; Jokowi'€™s perspective on ASEAN may still be vague. His frequent normative statements stress the need to improve bilateral relations with all countries. Yet neighbors also expect real actions with tangible benefits.

From the President'€™s statements on foreign policy, it seems Jokowi only prioritizes foreign relations when it clearly benefits Indonesia. '€œOur foreign policy is free and active. We make friends with all countries; but only when doing so would be beneficial to our people. Do not just make friends if we are disadvantaged.'€

Jokowi also seemed to try to answer whether he would continue the diplomatic strategy of his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who coined the term '€œa million friends and zero enemies'€. According to Jokowi, Indonesia'€™s interests are a central factor in deciding which country it will befriend.

'€œIf making friends would not give profit, then I would not do it. Conducting meetings are fine, but not too much.'€ That seems to be Jokowi'€™s logic of diplomacy in seeing ASEAN and foreign policy in general. Everything is based solely on benefit.

The scholar KJ Holsti defines foreign policy as an action designed by a government to solve problems or to promote change in an environment, which lies in the policy, attitude or acts of other nations. Thus foreign policy is a strategic decision made by a nation to enable it to contribute and influence the international environment and behavior of other countries.

Economic benefit is important, but it has never been the only factor in foreign policy. If that would be the case, then nation-states would be acting the same way as private companies that seek to maximize profit.

In the case of ASEAN, the apparent shift in foreign policy is particularly surprising. ASEAN has always been the cornerstone of Indonesia'€™s foreign policy since the late president Soeharto. Not only because Southeast Asia has been one of the most rapid developing regions, but ASEAN has also been influenced to a large extent by Indonesia'€™s active role.

According to Baris Kegin, the foreign policy of a country is influenced by its environment and challenges. It is also significantly influenced by the ideological background and leaders'€™ understanding on international affairs.

The era of president Yudhoyono marked a significant success in Indonesia'€™s diplomacy on ASEAN. Note the '€œdemocratic campaign'€ that Indonesia waged on Myanmar, which eventually influenced its democratic progress. Indonesia played an excellent diplomatic role in helping to de-escalate the Thailand-Cambodia conflict.

High economic growth in several ASEAN member countries could also be attributed to the success of maintaining peace in the region. The Philippines'€™ President Benigno Aquino regarded Indonesia as the true friend of his people. President U Thein Sein from Myanmar acknowledged Indonesia'€™s role in progressing democracy and stability in the region.

As part of ASEAN tradition, newly elected leaders engage in ritual regional visits '€” before visiting non-ASEAN countries. The logic is that when any country faces a problem, it is the neighbor who comes first to help. This ritual seems to have been interrupted by Jokowi when he departed for his first international trip as President, to China.

In November 2014, Jokowi attended the APEC Leaders Meeting in Beijing, ASEAN Summit in Myanmar and G-20 Leaders Summit in Brisbane, Australia. Those were three working visits.

'€œFriendship visits'€ to Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines or Singapore were missing from his schedule. It might be because President Jokowi wanted to give the impression that his government hastened to '€œwork right away'€.

However, in diplomatic relations, there are other sublime matters that we need to pay attention to, including the tradition of visiting our ASEAN friends first.

Besides the impression that Jokowi has sidelined ASEAN from Indonesia'€™s foreign policy priorities, he also appears to be getting closer to China. During the 60th Asian-African Conference Commemoration last April, a number of media reported that China swept up infrastructure projects in Indonesia, signaling the shift of our diplomatic focus to roll out a red carpet for China.

Ironically, the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) was disappointed by the flood of Chinese investment pledges in the first six months of Jokowi'€™s presidency. Out of 10 agreements on investments with China, only one has materialized so far.

Jokowi'€™s understanding on ASEAN'€™s historic and geopolitical value to Indonesia could be traced back to his presidential campaign. Jokowi stated that it would better if Indonesia stayed out of problems between other ASEAN countries regarding the South China Sea. '€œThat is a problem for other countries. If we played a role, that is also good. But if we do not have the right solution, our diplomatic effort does not result in anything, then why should we do it?'€

The statement further signaled Jokowi'€™s perception of ASEAN '€” while the South China Sea issue is vital to Indonesia'€™s interests since it relates to territorial disputes involving rich natural resources and could easily lead to further tensions.

I am confident, nevertheless, that Jokowi actually is interested in promoting ASEAN cooperation. Probably we just have to see the President in action, engaging in a bold approach on ASEAN. Particularly ahead of the region'€™s economic integration at the end of this year, Indonesia'€™s role is much awaited to give a positive outcome for the region'€™s better future.
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The era of president Yudhoyono marked a significant success in Indonesia'€™s diplomacy in ASEAN.
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The writer is deputy chairman of the House of Representatives Commission I overseeing foreign affairs and a member of the Golkar Party.

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