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Preparing a post-SBY foreign policy

Publication Date : 06-01-2014


Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa presents this week his annual foreign policy speech. If tradition holds, the speech will serve more as a ledger than a strategic marker for diplomacy in the year ahead.

A public relations shindig, in a meet and greet atmosphere with invited guests from the foreign policy community, Marty will highlight the accomplishments of the past year and present a broad overview of the year ahead.

But diplomacy this year should be somewhat different than in previous ones.

The current administration is an expiring one. After the presidential election, six months from now, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration will effectively be a caretaker government.

Yet, from the current batch of presidential frontrunners, nearly all have a limited fondness for foreign policy. Absent will be the kind of keenness and strategic sophistication on global affairs exhibited by Yudhoyono during his decade in office.

Hence, the conduct of diplomacy during this final countdown of the Yudhoyono era is likely to become an outline for the new government in October.

Foreign policy is no short-term affair. There are rarely sudden shifts or U-turns in the execution of diplomacy. Things may be tempered or modified, but the present course is likely to be the pursued direction for some time to come.

It is thus important that sufficient emphasis is now given to priority issues as a marker to follow.

There are at least five priorities that deserve attention.

Foremost is to adopt a renewed mind-set on protecting, facilitating and assisting Indonesians abroad, beyond a simple understanding of consular services.

Imagine the whole population of West Sumatra packing up its bags and moving overseas. That is roughly the demographic challenge faced in the provision for and protection of citizens abroad.

Remittances sent home by migrant workers have become an integral part of the economy, contributing more than US$7 billion every year.

This is an interdepartmental challenge that the Foreign Ministry cannot resolve by itself. Aside from the government’s goodwill pledges, public perception about the treatment of Indonesian workers abroad is still one of exploitation rather than facilitation. Altering this perception is the litmus test.

The overwhelming numbers of Indonesians dispersed across the globe should not be an excuse. If overwhelmed, then allocate more resources!

The government should understand that when budgeting for the Foreign Ministry, it is not just doing so for the upkeep of ambassadors but for the ministry as a whole, whose constituency equals the populations of Maluku, North Maluku, West Papua and Papua provinces combined.

Focus should be concentrated on migrant workers rather than Indonesia’s brightest and best who have chosen to move abroad for economic prosperity. Highlighting the exploits of the latter may have a feel-good effect, but it does little to support the majority of millions who toil overseas on susceptible contracts, working for the sake of economic survival.

The second priority, like the first, is an extension of current policy that has yet to reach a perceptibly desired level. Economic diplomacy and promotion is an inherent part of 21st century foreign relations.

Perhaps Indonesians are poor at marketing; perhaps we just don’t do enough. Or perhaps the coordination between ministries is just so bad that trade and tourism expeditions abroad are treated as junkets.

A new approach may be needed; one that demands public funds but increasingly involves private-sector expertise as the fulcrum of the campaigns. Keep the negotiations for diplomats, and leave the campaigns to salesmen and communication practitioners.

This will become even more critical as the Asean Economic Community (AEC) is launched in 2015.

Third is bilateral activism in maintaining regional security and stability. The tensions in East Asia, the flashpoints regarding the South China Sea and the border conflicts between Cambodia and Thailand prove that while evolving regional mechanisms can serve as a framework for peaceful cooperation, they are unsuccessful in mitigating hostilities.

In this case, Indonesia should still be the lead player in reducing hostilities, be it on behalf of Asean or the East Asian Community.

For that, either a skilled foreign minister or an acknowledged statesman as president is needed. Indonesia presently has both. Their conduct in these regional issues over the next nine months will be a model for the next administration.

The fourth priority is the need for diplomatic aggressiveness to maintain the unity and centrality of Asean. An assertive stance is required to prevent the association from politically dissipating into internal blocks as the 10 members swing closer toward competing power coalitions between the US and China.

It is ironic that five decades after its founding, Asean is again being segregated in line with members’ sidings with regional powers. In this way, Asean members are nothing more than pawns in a regional chessboard.

The final immediate priority is to thaw the chill between Jakarta and Canberra.

Canberra needs to change its outlook on Asia and to deal respectfully toward its neighbors; the recent cold shoulder by Jakarta was well-deserved. But there should be a perimeter within which the frostiness is contained.

The current chill serves no strategic interest, other than satisfying our ego. Once Prime Minister Tony Abbott has learned who Australia’s true friends are, Jakarta should vanquish the undercurrent of bitterness that presides over bilateral cooperation.

A failure to do so will extend the chill beyond the current administration.

If Yudhoyono and Marty can set these priorities and implement them well, they will leave a strong legacy for the next government to follow.


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