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Jakarta Post

Indonesian foreign policy: Raising the game in 2016

Dino Patti Djalal
Jakarta   ●   Tue, January 5, 2016

The year 2016 will present a much more challenging international environment for Indonesia. Relations between the major powers could unpredictably improve or decline, what the US Federal Reserve will do remains unclear and the US will elect a new president.

The commodities slump is likely to continue, emerging economies seem to be in retreat, Southeast Asia is officially entering the '€œcommunity era'€, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is coming, the migrant crisis may worsen, the Middle East will become more volatile and the Islamic State (IS) movement will continue to make our world more dangerous.

As a middle power with limited resources, Indonesia will need to figure out how to plunge into such an unsettling world, what the scale of our ambition is and how we can best extract global resources that are in the national interest. Certainly, Indonesia'€™s foreign policy will need to be taken to a new level or the nation risks becoming a marginal power.

How can we raise our game in 2016? Let me offer a few well-meaning suggestions.

For a start, the Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo administration should place less emphasis on '€œdifferentiation'€ from the previous government. I was surprised to see the extent to which differentiation shaped foreign policy thinking in 2015.

Foreign policy is like a long-distance relay race: The next runner must take the baton and take it further and faster. Launch new initiatives, but capitalize on assets that are working.

Yet, what happened to the Bali Democracy Forum (BDF), to pick one example, suggests the opposite. In a world of rising turbulence, the BDF serves as Indonesia'€™s unique and positive contribution to world peace by providing the only region-wide inter-governmental forum to discuss democracy.

However, rather than upgrading the forum to address fast-moving international events, the BDF was downgraded from the summit to the ministerial level '€” partly because it is seen as a legacy of the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono administration and thus something to be differentiated from. Surely, there must a more sensible nonpartisan foreign policy approach.

Second, the government should urgently set-up a foreign policy unit within the Presidential Palace. The glaring absence of a '€œgo to'€ official '€” in the State Secretariat, in the Cabinet Secretary and in the President'€™s chief of staff office '€” has been a source of frustration to ambassadors and diplomats in Jakarta, causing some operational mishaps. Indonesia is now the only G20 country without a foreign policy unit in the president'€™s office.

The Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) recommends that this unit should be under the structure of the Presidential Chief of Staff and led by a senior career diplomat with experience in the specialized world of diplomacy.

Third, the Foreign Ministry must assume center stage in foreign policy. The recent foreign assignments given to various ministers is not likely to improve our diplomacy '€” indeed, it will make diplomacy more confusing and messy, both to domestic stakeholders and their foreign counterparts. In 2015, we witnessed enough inter-agency competition: What the government needs now is more coordination and coherence.

As they work their turf, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi and her ministry officials must remember that they are the guardians of a long tradition of excellence and activism in Indonesian foreign policy, and they should not shy away from using sharp elbows in dealing with their Cabinet peers to live up to such legacy.

Fourth, Indonesia will need to refocus on ASEAN beyond a routine attendance at summit and ministerial meetings. Indonesia'€™s de facto leadership of ASEAN is a big part of our global relevance. Yet, our leadership position in that association is not permanent: It must be constantly renewed.

The Jokowi administration must earn '€” not demand '€” the respect of fellow ASEAN members, by taking fresh policy initiatives, by acting as a uniting factor, by being attentive to the interests of other ASEAN states and by displaying an engaged form of statesmanship.

We also need to see dedicated ASEAN champions within the Jokowi Cabinet: a group of ministers willing to bat for ASEAN to our domestic audience and who can skillfully convince the growing number of skeptics regarding the merits of the ASEAN Community. We did not see much of that in 2015. Simply put, Indonesia cannot be strong in ASEAN unless ASEAN is strong within Indonesia.

Fifth, the relevant bodies should concentrate on the three major international commitments already made by President Jokowi: first, Indonesia'€™s entry into the TPP, which is the most significant foreign policy decision of President Jokowi thus far; second, the climate pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 29 percent (or 41 percent with international support) by 2020; and third, the promise to prevent future forest fires.

There is an impression that Jakarta is now courting Washington, DC, Beijing, Tokyo and others without clear direction.

These are by no means low hanging fruits. Each of these commitments will be closely watched by the domestic and international community. And each will require enormous inter-agency coordination, bureaucratic and resource mobilization, economic reform and legal adjustment.

Sixth, Indonesia should beef up its geopolitical engagement. 2015 saw strong efforts by President Jokowi to entice foreign governments and investors to strike economic deals, and these efforts have yielded good results. Such positive economic diplomacy must be balanced by equally strong geopolitical activism. We must never forget that in our history, Indonesia'€™s national security and wellbeing has always depended on our ability to intelligently engage major and emerging powers.

There is an impression that Jakarta is now courting Washington, DC, Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow, Canberra, New Delhi and others without clear direction, and certainly without a grand strategy. The Foreign Ministry still functions without a white paper, which often leaves our own ambassadors and diplomats second-guessing Jakarta'€™s next move. Keep in mind that '€œindependent and active foreign policy'€ is a principle, not a plan.

The Jokowi administration urgently needs to come up with a major foreign policy vision of how Indonesia can best reposition itself in the great geopolitical chessboard of the 21st century. The concept of a maritime fulcrum has the potential to serve such a purpose, but the government has prematurely clarified that '€œmaritime fulcrum'€ is merely an internal blueprint for inter-island connectivity and prosperity and serves no external purpose.

The FPCI recommends that this position be reversed so that our maritime policies have larger geostrategic purpose and strengthen Indonesia'€™s regional role. Who knows, with the right statecraft, Indonesia'€™s maritime fulcrum could help to stabilize the volatile strategic competition created by the policies of the US Rebalance, China'€™s Maritime Silk Road, India'€™s Act East and Japan'€™s increased maritime security initiatives.

Finally, while it is not imperative for President Jokowi to be a foreign policy President it is important that President Jokowi begins to engage a small circle of foreign leaders with whom he can establish personal rapport in a relationship of mutual trust and frequent consultation.

No matter how competent Foreign Minister Retno is, there is no substitute for close relations at the highest level. These relationships could be a multiplier for our diplomacy and might come in handy should Indonesia one day decide to launch a major diplomatic push on a given issue.

Who President Jokowi picks as his close friends is for him to decide and depends on chemistry, but those who would likely pick up his call at a moment'€™s notice would be: Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Singapore'€™s PM Lee Hsien Loong, Malaysia'€™s PM Najib Razak. Jokowi should also seek to create personal rapport with Japan'€™s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian PM Narendra Modi.

Foreign Minister Retno spent much of 2015 persistently trying to convince the world that Jokowi'€™s Indonesia is not inward looking and not given to narrow nationalism. She has carried out this task admirably. It is now time for her to move on to a different narrative: In a world that seems to be unraveling, Indonesia is a significant middle power that is fully capable of shaping the course of events in international affairs.

The writer is founder of the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) and a former deputy minister for foreign affairs.