Thursday, 24 March 2011

A New Episode in Indonesia-US Relations

During a telephone conversation with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2008, US President Barack Obama expressed how he missed several Indonesian delicacies like nasi goreng (fried rice), rambutan (a tropical, lychee-like fruit), and bakso (meatball soup). How could he not? Any Indonesian would testify to how much power the flavor of local fruits and spices have in luring back those who have visited our beautiful land.

Indeed, the food would not be the only thing that would bring back President Obama to some of his fondest memories in Indonesia. His former neighborhood in Menteng Dalam remains a leafy, peaceful residential area in the middle of Indonesia’s vibrant capital city, Jakarta. And at the heart of this city, the historic Hotel Indonesia still stands proud, a striking landmark daily mesmerized by locals and visitors alike.

But the world President Obama lived in during his stay in Indonesia is no longer the world of today. Gone is the Cold War. Gone are the politics dominated by the East-West rivalry. Gone also are the times when the domestic politics of developing countries became the stage on which the world’s two most powerful countries struggled for hegemony.

We are now living in a world driven by growing multi-polarity and increasingly interconnected by the common challenges we have to face.

And as the world changed, so has Indonesia.

Since 1998, we have witnessed the transformation of this multicultural nation of over 240 million people as the third largest democracy in the world. Indonesians are now enjoying the harmony and stability created by greater civil and political rights. In a country with the largest muslim population in the world, the Indonesian people have shown that democracy, Islam, and modernity can indeed go hand in hand.

Indonesia has also shown its resilience in the face of economic difficulties. Having overcome the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and dealing with the recent Global Financial Crisis, Indonesia’s economy continues to pose an economic growth of around 4% per year. It has been heralded as one of the success stories in the region. Most importantly, such growth is being sustained by economic foundations unlike those of the New Order era.

As well, the reform era has ushered in greater efforts to strengthen the country’s legal system. Once a nation ruled by the power of individuals, Indonesia is now shaping itself as a country governed by the rule of law.

Through it all, the people have come to learn that national development must rest upon three pillars equally: democracy, prosperity, and justice.

The reform era has also ushered in the opportunity for Indonesia to conduct a more active foreign policy. Having earned significant democratic credentials as a result of its political reform, Indonesia is presently enjoying a growing status in international affairs. However, with greater status also come greater responsibility.

As a prominent player in the Asia Pacific, Indonesia seeks to contribute towards regional peace and stability through community building and facilitating the evolution of regional architecture. As a developing country, Indonesia is keen on bridging the gap between the South and the North through multilateral cooperation. As the largest democracy in East Asia, Indonesia encourages the development of homegrown democratic values throughout the region. And as the country with the largest muslim population in the world, Indonesia looks to bring closer the Islamic civilization and the West.

These foreign policy credentials and goals have also put Indonesia in a better position to engage one of its most strategic partners, the United States. Indeed, relations between the two have experienced some turbulence as misperception grew between the Islamic and western civilizations. However, with recent developments in the US as well as its willingness to be in a “listening mode”, Indonesia sees a growing momentum for both countries to step up their relations.

Unlike the “receiver-donor” relationship that framed Indonesia-US cooperation during the Cold War, present conditions point to an opportunity for the two countries to help one another on the basis of equal partnership as well as mutual trust and confidence.

During President Obama’s visit to Indonesia in March 2010, we will witness the establishment of a comprehensive bilateral partnership agreement covering various, multi-level aspects of the two countries’ future cooperation. This follows-up on efforts carried out during the visit to Jakarta of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February 2009, which, to a large extent, has set the tone for rapidly improving relations between Indonesia and the US this last year.

The growing bilateral ties also strengthen the platform on which Indonesia and the US could cooperate at the regional and multilateral levels. Through soft power approaches, Indonesia and the US should strive for the development of democratic values in the region as well as the promotion of an international order based on multi-polarity and international law.

Through forums such as G-20, the two countries could together promote efforts at overcoming the multi-dimensional challenges facing the world, especially those having a severe economic impact on developing countries. Moreover, through the promotion of inter-faith and inter-civilization dialogues, Indonesia and the US should strive for a climate conducive for the building of harmony among all.

Last year, as Indonesians welcomed President Obama with rambutan, nasi goreng, and bakso, we also hoped to reaffirm the American leaders’ special attachment to our country. At the same time, while appreciating such a special attachment, Indonesia also hoped to potentially strengthen and modernize its ties and cooperation with the US.

The time is right for the writing of a new episode in Indonsia-US relations. An episode highlighted by the common aspiration to bridge the gaps existing between the southern and northern hemispheres, between Islam and the West. A common goal to overcome the challenges of globalization for the benefit of the two countries’ peoples and beyond.

Monday, 14 March 2011

China Does Matter

The discourse on China has over the years blossomed in Indonesia. Having re-established diplomatic ties in 1990 after over 24 years of freezing, questions have since been asked with regards to how Indonesia should deal with China’s growing influence in international politics. In general, most people agree that engagement with China needs to be stepped up. However, as the usual case, the trickiest questions often remain unanswered; What must be done? How can it be done?

While Indonesia-China relations have grown since 1990, much of this has been attributed to the uncoordinated, exclusive engagement efforts of certain segments within the Indonesian Government and society. Officials carry out solo approaches towards Chinese counterparts, unaware of those conducted by others in the government. At the same time, the private sector is going about its business without sufficient recognition and guidance by the government. As a result, it is not rare that we see duplications in efforts.

China may need Indonesia as much as Indonesia needs China. However, if engagement with China continues to be carried out sparingly and with a lack of coordination, then Indonesia would unlikely be able to increase its overall leverage and ensure that its relations with China benefit the Indonesian people as a whole.

At a time when many countries are cozying up to China and trying to take advantage of China’s growing power, Indonesia does not appear to be putting enough effort in strengthening its relations with China. Such a view was even expressed by the Chinese Ambassador to Indonesia during a lunch gathering with Indonesian businessmen in March 2010.

On the one hand, Indonesia sees China as a potentially beneficial partner in efforts to strengthen the national economy. Between 2001 and 2009, bilateral trade grew from USD 6.7 billion to USD 25.5 billion. Such growth has also been complemented by progress in ASEAN-China relations, particularly considering the establishment of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area. Indeed, ASEAN as a whole is a major trading partner for China, ranking 3rd and 4th in terms of exports to and imports from China, respectively.

On the other hand, China sees a considerable amount of significance in its relations with Indonesia, the largest and most populated country in Southeast Asia. In 2011, such significance will become more pronounced as Indonesia assumes the Chairmanship of ASEAN. As a way to enhance is stature in international relations, China has been active in engaging the Asia-Pacific through structures such as APEC, East Asia Summit, ASEAN+3, and ASEAN+China. Although statistics show that China’s trade with Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore are more significant, Indonesia continues to be treated as ASEAN’s most influential player.

The rise of China is a fact; it is pure nonsense to even argue in favor of either “containing” China or not engaging it at all. As a leading Southeast Asia nation, Indonesia would do well in demonstrating its leadership in the region through a well-calibrated engagement with China. Yet, if Indonesia’s understanding, approach, and effort in nursing this bilateral relationship remain lacking, sooner or later Indonesia would find itself at the short end of the relationship, unable to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with China and its growing power.