Friday, September 14, 2007

Indonesian International Role: Weighing its Potential Assets

By Perry PADA


There have been many gloomy predictions and worst case scenario assumptions made by many ´analysts’ for Indonesia’s future since the economic crisis in 1997, the fall of Soeharto in 1998 and the new initiation of democratic elections in 1999. To the contrary, Indonesia is currently putting all of its efforts to upgrading its national development record while improving its role in the international arena. It is unquestioned that between 1999 and 2004 the country faced its most difficult domestic challenges as it initiated its reforms. Beginning with 2004 up to the present, the new administration, began its domestic democratically rooted capacity building, fulfilled its international obligations while simultaneously improving its international image.

The new face of Indonesia in international relations demonstrates the effectiveness of its fledgling democracy. For others, Indonesia has politically remained a volatile country that at any time can erupt into social unrest thereby jeopardizing the political stability of the nation. The reason behind this pessimism is clear and simple; the democratic foundation remains weak. For socialist critiques, Indonesian democracy is baseless since it is not developed from the grass roots of society but is merely the changing of the ruling regime. Regimes come and go, with various small policy changes but the people remain as huge spectators. At this stage, I have assumed that economy and education are likely the most crucial sectors for Indonesia to maintain its democratic stability while prudently achieving its national goals.
The above briefly stated assumption will further links domestic sources to the development of the nation’s international relations. The main theme of this short essay is to demonstrate that Indonesia’s ability to successfully overcome its domestic challenges clears the way for its new international role. The fall of authoritarianism and its replacement with representative democracy, and all that entails, is the key to this new international profile

Domestic Sketch

Domestically, the current Indonesian Administration has a positive image due to its successful and peaceful political transformation from military authoritarianism to a civilian regime. Indonesia has been claimed as the third largest democratic country in the world due to its successful national, provincial and municipal elections. Since the wind of reformation has blown for merely nine years the democratic restructuring of state institutions, most especially the military has been arduous, but worth the price as the country no longer carries a negative Human Rights burden. The residual human rights issues in East Timor and Aceh have been peacefully managed and solved. The latter has actually augmented Indonesia’s image in the eyes of international society.

Unlike in the era of the authoritarian regime when the parliament merely functioned as a rubber stamp body of the executive, the present Indonesian parliament has emerged as a powerful body in its own right. The most convincing illustration of this was the successful dismissal of President Gus dur. The Parliament may be seen by some as a super body but it has clearly demonstrated its role as a check on Executive power.

Another crucial domestic element is that Indonesia is the largest Muslim democracy in the world – and has developed a unique political and societal model that does not confront its religious minorities without turning them – or the majority - into extremists. Religious tensions occasionally flare – but at the very local level which is not unique to Indonesia. It is an excellent national asset with an accommodating Islam which potentially can have an impact on other Moslem societies.

International “growing” Profile

Indonesia’s geopolitical position is crucial to the stability of the ASEAN region. It has good relationships with its neighbors and has no outstanding regional or international security issues while actively involved in a modest way contributing to the solution of regional issues. Yes, there is some conflict of interests between and among its neighbors particularly on the border issue but they had been solving peacefully within the spirit of ASEAN.

Internationally, Indonesia is a founding father of the non aligned movement, therefore has a non-partisan, relatively independent view on many issues. It is a pillar of the group of 77 at the United Nation General Assembly, and generates much support from its members its potential relations with many developing countries, especially in Africa needs much attention in the present and future.

On the issue of the Islam, it is clear that the Muslim world is currently facing an unprecedented crisis, most evident with the lack of progress in the Middle East. The opposition, or lack of understanding, of the western world, leaves little space for moderate Muslims to have their views heard as they attempt to resist extremist tendencies that are finding an increasing resonance among a population that sees no alternative model.

Concerning the issue of combating terrorism Indonesia stands firm in its commitment to eliminating it in all forms. It has directly suffered from it in recent times. Indonesia had just recovered from the first terrorist attack on Bali Island three years ago, when in October terrorists struck Bali again. The success of Indonesian security organizations to track down the most dangerous terrorist in Southeast Asia, Dr. Azahari, was hailed by many countries. Indonesia through international cooperation has been working together to build capacity and capability through the sharing of technology, know-how, and intelligence information in the fight against terrorism.

In terms of international support, Indonesia has been the beneficiary of wide-spread support during its Post-Tsunami recovery. It enjoys a tremendous ‘sympathy capital’ on four continents. Relations with the western world are excellent, and also served for conflict resolution: the peaceful solution and reconstruction found for Aceh benefited from the 200 million euros donated by European and other countries. But as opposed to other Asian countries, Indonesia has no post-colonization traumas and/or specific affinities with any European countries – and no member of the P5, in particular.

Indonesia has a traditionally close relationship to China, and mutual understanding of the problems faced by such sizeable, multi-ethnic countries, and the risks posed by separatist tendencies. Economic/financial cooperation is also mutually benefiting. China is currently the engine driving the world economy. And it is the second largest external holder of the US Federal Bonds after Japan, therefore largely controlling the ‘dollar economy’ and a major countries’ stability. On China, Indonesia understands Chinese concerns of economic growth and the social transformation implied. With 9, 8 percent growth per year and 1, 2 trillion USD national reserve and the GDP around 3 billion USD, China is certainly becoming a locomotive engine of the emerging Asia pacific era. Indonesia should position itself to benefit from China’s achievements.

Due to its Muslim majority Indonesia is a perfect partner for the United States in search of a moderator capable of acting as a good will broker with Muslim societies. A recent visit of the Foreign Minister of USA to Indonesia had shown a good improvement of Indonesian links with the United States and can lead to a bigger role in the Middle East peace process. The resumption of Indonesia – USA bilateral defense cooperation is a clear good mark of this improved relationship. The recent visit of the British Prime Minister to Muslim institutions in Indonesia was also a clear indication that Indonesia remains a reference in balancing religious issues with temperance.

Indonesia relation with Russia now is at its peak. Russia now has the world's second-largest foreign currency reserves after China because of soaring prices for its vast stores of oil and natural gas. Just recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin witnessed the signing of a $1 billion arms deal, helping Indonesia to support its defence and military. "The visit opens a new era for Russian and Indonesian relations. With Russia almost out of its transition phase after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is essential that it seeks to foster an alliance with Indonesia if it wants to balance the U.S.," said Hariyadi Wirawan, an international relations expert at the University of Indonesia (direct quoted from The Jakarta Post). To this point, Dr. Sam Noumoff, my academic supervisor from McGill University added that the relation with Russia is a positive development in Indonesia’s foreign policy of balancing external sources. The central advantage raised is the prospect of a technology transfer. The details of this are of critical importance.

At the United Nations itself, Indonesia now is a non permanent member of the Security Council. A quite reputable achievement since Indonesia will also impact the discussion on many important issues within this high body of the UN. In many important events, Indonesia has always kept a low profile but without disengaging from its responsibility. For instance, Indonesia has increased its military participation to peacekeeping operations, serving with notable success in Africa in particular. Now Indonesia is actively involved in the Lebanon peace keeping force. In terms of UN Staff, as opposed to other Asian countries, including India and Thailand, Indonesia does not have an over-representation in terms of UN staff – Indonesia is actually below its quota.

While it is yet to be tested in real circumstances, given the above sketch, it is largely dependent on Indonesia to make its diplomacy effectively and efficiently by making accurate calculations, weighing its strength and weakness prior to its action. It would be more effective if Indonesia enhance its relationship with a potential giant economy in its Asian circle. A lot of work remains, but we are clearly heading to the excellent point.

Cascais, Lisbon, September 2007.

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