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Jakarta Post

Insight: Jokowi'€™s foreign policy: Assertive or nationalistic?

  • Hikmahanto Juwana

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, June 25, 2015   /  01:12 pm

Indonesia has been rising and is on its way to becoming a major regional and global actor.

Thus it is imperative that Indonesia develop a new interpretation of free and active foreign policy. The new interpretation would take into account the diverse political interests of its neighbors and would engage in international relations, which can respond to the fast-changing geopolitical map.

However, just like any other country, Indonesia also has its own interests and must take into account the aspirations of its people.

How to balance national interests with the need to co-exist with others in the international community? This has become a challenge for President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo'€™s administration. An assertive foreign policy may be interpreted by other countries as nationalistic and a self-centered foreign policy.

Relations with China can be taken as an example. In contesting China'€™s '€œnine-dash line'€ claim, President Jokowi stated while visiting Japan that China did not have a legal basis for claiming the nine-dash line. This is important as Indonesia needs to be assertive in protecting its maritime interests.

But at the same time Indonesia needs to ensure and protect its friendly relations with China. President Jokowi'€™s visit to China soon after his visit to Japan has not caused any issues. Indonesia has reaffirmed its readiness to act as an honest peace broker in the South China Sea conflict.

Indonesia today is more assertive in defending its sovereignty and national interests. The free and active foreign policy has been reinterpreted.

Under Susilo Bambang Yudho-yono the policy was interpreted as '€œa thousand friends, zero enemies'€. Now, the policy has been reinterpreted to become '€œall nations are friends until Indonesia'€™s sovereignty is degraded and national interests are jeopardized'€.

The reinterpretation is not to say that president Yudhoyono was wrong, but it was needed to make Indonesia'€™s role at the international level visible.

The new interpretation of a free and active foreign policy is shown in two accounts: Sinking foreign ships that commit illegal fishing in Indonesian waters, and executing drug-related offenders.

The two accounts have raised eyebrows from friendly countries. Brazil went as far as not accepting credentials from the new Indonesian ambassador, Toto Riyanto. Australia has been exerting pressure and has threatened that relations will become sour.

The criticism of sinking boats is that it is a selective policy. The government did not take a long time to sink ships from countries such as Thailand, Vietnam or the Philippines, but it took a long time to sink a Chinese ship for illegal fishing.

For President Jokowi whether it will take a short or long time, the result is the same; if you do wrong in Indonesian seas, penalties will be imposed. The boat will be sunk.

As for the executions of foreign nationals convicted of drug-related offenses, despite repeated appeals by the countries whose nationals were on death row, Indonesia proceeded with the executions.

President Jokowi continuously emphasized that imposing a death penalty on drug-related convicts was Indonesia'€™s sovereign right, which had to be respected by all other countries.

His message was clear: The executions had to be carried out, even at the risk of losing friends or turning them into enemies. This message also applied to a longtime ally and Indonesia'€™s traditionally great friend, Australia, whose citizens were among those executed.

In criticizing Indonesia for sinking ships that committed illegal fishing and executing drug-related convicts, countries realized that they could not cross the line between defending the rights of their nationals and defending their wrongful acts. They understood that their nationals had violated Indonesian laws.

To many in the Indonesian public, countries exerting pressure on Indonesia were defending criminals. The public then reacted in giving more support to the government to resist.

What does an assertive foreign policy mean for other countries? For sure this indicates Indonesia'€™s ascent as a regional and global player.

Today'€™s Indonesia is very different from what it used to be. Its emerging economy coupled with the doctrines of sovereignty and national interests has given confidence, leading to a more assertive stance. It knows what it wants and is willing to strive to get it. When it comes to national interest, the administration is unwilling to negotiate and ready to confront whatever or whoever stands in its way.

As countries around the world need to adjust to Indonesia'€™s foreign policy, powerful and developed states may no longer exert pressure on issues inherently within the domestic jurisdiction of Indonesia.

Furthermore, countries must understand that the new shape of foreign policy is not merely what President Jokowi desires, but it is the aspiration of the people. In a growing democracy, citizens have more say in shaping Indonesia'€™s relations with other countries compared to the past.

Thus, Indonesia'€™s assertive foreign policy has taken into account what the public wants. Most of Jokowi'€™s policies mentioned above, such as sinking foreign ships that commit illegal fishing and executions of drug kingpins, were widely supported by the Indonesian public.

The writer is a professor of law at the University of Indonesia.

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