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Jakarta Post

Commentary: Jokowi'€™s diplomacy, problems of executions and bullet trains

  • Kornelius Purba

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, October 23, 2015   /  06:16 pm

President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo has intentionally paid no great attention to foreign affairs as he still wants to settle more pressing domestic problems. However, his harsh stance against drug traffickers and his good intention to get the best deals for his infrastructure development ambitions have, directly or indirectly, strong implications for Indonesia'€™s relations with other countries.

During his election campaign, the former Jakarta governor and mayor of Surakarta laid out a four-point agenda on foreign affairs as a part of his Nawacita (nine priorities agenda), which include enhancing Indonesia'€™s position as the world'€™s largest archipelagic state.

Jokowi still has four years to accomplish his great mission, but has made significant progress in realizing his determination for Indonesia to regain its position as a maritime power. He fully realizes that no matter how actively and aggressively Indonesia participates in global fora, if the country does not have enough capacity to support his global vision, the effort will be meaningless.

Among Indonesia'€™s seven presidents, Jokowi is clearly the only one who shows the least interest and experience in foreign affairs '€” at least for a while. The former middle-scale furniture exporter prefers pragmatic diplomatic approaches to accelerate the realization of his campaign promises and platforms, such as for high economic growth and national resilience.

Just a few weeks after taking over the presidential seat from Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who paid enormous attention to regional and global issues, Jokowi reportedly told journalists that he just wanted to '€œdirectly talk business'€ and avoid '€œcourteous conversations'€ in his meetings with his foreign counterparts, including with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Even after one year in power, the President still shows inward-looking tendencies, apparently because he has been preoccupied with domestic problems, especially the sluggish economy. It is true that he has attended several multilateral summits, such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting, the G20 Summit, the summits of ASEAN and East Asia and the commemorative summit of the 60th anniversary of the Asia-Africa Conference, but apparently the gatherings did not change his domestic-heavy position and until now it is clear he has not paid special attention to ASEAN, or the ASEAN Economic Community, which will come into full operation at the end of this year.

All of Jokowi'€™s six predecessors were fond of statecraft, not just because it is a constitutional obligation, but also because they often used it as an opportunity to escape from domestic difficulties by shifting people'€™s frustrations from economic and political hardships. Relations with the US, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are easy targets for leaders when altering people'€™s anger over domestic politics.

Now, let us focus on two domestic policies that have strong external implications and which have often forced the Foreign Ministry into weird positions because the diplomats had to defend policies that they did not follow or participate in from their very beginnings.

The first was about the death penalty and the second about the bullet train that pitted Japan against China.

On Jan. 18, the government executed five foreigners, including a Brazilian, and one Indonesian. On April 29, executions were conducted on seven foreigners, including two Australians, and one Indonesian. They were all drug traffickers. The President refused to show mercy because he said Indonesia was facing a drug abuse emergency. His argument was completely legitimate.

What is damaging for Indonesia is not only the fact that the executions occurred during a global trend against the death penalty, but also because capital punishment has little deterrent effect, at least so far, as is evident in the rampant trafficking and production of drugs that even occurs inside prisons. The way government officials acted and spoke to the public about the executions sent a false message about the nation.

Early in September, the government told Japanese and Chinese envoys it was scrapping the Jakarta-Bandung bullet train project. Japan was disappointed and angry because it had conducted a feasibility study. Japan was outraged because the project, albeit an altered version, was later awarded to China.

When the government decided to cancel the Cilamaya port project in Karawang, West Java, in April, Japan chose to stay quiet, apparently because it still had high expectations for the train project.

From business and economic points of view the decision was legitimate. What the President did not apparently recognize when he made it were the severe adversarial rivalries between Japan and China. The decision might have been beneficial, but in the long run it could be damaging in terms of our relations
with Japan.

The two cases show that even when the President did not put much focus on foreign affairs, domestic policies nonetheless often created damaging complications in the international community.