When Asean foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communique after their annual meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, last month, it was declared a diplomatic disaster – the worst crisis the 10-member state regional grouping has faced since its birth in 1967. The region's officials not only demonstrated deep divisions over the thorny issue of disputed claims with China in the South China Sea, they also stopped Asean's heartbeat. Without a joint communique, it's not even possible for the Secretary-General's successor to be formally named. No sooner had the ministers returned from Cambodia, Indonesia moved to rescue Asean from embarrassing oblivion. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono instructed his foreign minister Marty Natalegawa to visit the Asean capitals. He wrote to their heads of government. The first outcome has been a weak but nonetheless consensual statement on the South China Sea that seeks to repair the deep rift among member states, reinforced by the hardline stance taken by Vietnam and the Philippines towards China's claims of sovereignty in the area. It was a classic example of Indonesia's quiet diplomacy.
Indonesia has long been praised for its quiet leadership in the region. Indonesia under president Suharto spearheaded the formation of Asean in the 1960s. Jakarta demonstrably turned its back on the expansionist policies of the previous decade that saw Indonesian troops invade Malaysia. Over the next three decades, while Indonesia's economy grew, its diplomatic posture remained modest, allowing Asean to establish itself as a forum in which member states sat as equals. Building on this unique power profile, Jakarta initiated a peace process in Cambodia in the 1990s. Later, it convened the claimant states in the South China Sea in a bid to forge agreement on a code of conduct. More recently, it seized the initiative to mediate between Thailand and Cambodia after fighting broke out over a disputed temple site. Not all these initiatives have borne fruit, nor has Indonesia been able to act the mediator or arbiter of disputes alone. The Cambodian peace process was hatched in Jakarta but nurtured in a regional context, along with other Asean states, the backing of France and assistance of Australia. More recently, Jakarta's brokering of a deal involving the dispatch of ceasefire monitors to the disputed area of the Thai-Cambodian border was more or less shunned by the Thais. Sometimes, Jakarta's eyes are bigger than its stomach. Over the 14 years since its transition to democracy, Indonesian leaders have dreamt of harnessing democratic values to foreign policy and playing a larger role in the wider world. This harks back to the country's revolutionary birth, which owed a debt to non-aligned countries such as India, and instilled a bold activism in the nation's early diplomats that lives on in a foreign policy formally styled as "free and active." A string of initiatives, such as the Bali Democracy Forum, active roles in the G-20 and at global environmental forums, seek to place Indonesia's diplomatic activism on a global and more idealistic level. These efforts have been somewhat hampered by shortfalls in capacity. In broad terms, bureaucratic rigidity and inefficiency have acted as a drag on Indonesia's reforms. The foreign ministry is no different in this sense – lacking in resources, personnel and slow to follow up on political initiatives. One way around this capacity issue has been increasing engagement at the track-two level, which has taken the pressure off officials. Notable in this regard is a series of meetings with politicians and activists from Egypt convened by former foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda. Indonesia has also been quietly promoting political reform in Myanmar, hosting visits by the country's presidential advisory team and sending military reformers such as Agus Wijoyo to pass on Indonesia's experience of democratic transition. Whether at the high level or by deploying civil society, Indonesia's foreign policy activism has focused on strengthening regional cohesion, pursuing peace and promoting democracy. Indonesia is the driving force behind the establishment of the Asean Institute of Peace and Reconciliation, which Asean leaders have reluctantly approved in principle and which will soon be established in Jakarta. Increasingly, Jakarta is becoming a platform for free speech in the region that can be utilized by people from countries where freedom of expression is still curbed. This has provided a critical counter-balance to Indonesia's instinctive nationalist sentiments and growing concerns about its tolerance and pluralism domestically. For on the deficit side of the foreign policy ledger, there remains strong resistance to international help with domestic conflicts such as Papua, where foreign governments must tread warily around an alarming build-up of irredentist tensions for which dialogue is the obvious antidote. Entrenched protectionist thinking is also a drag on collective regional efforts to forge more open markets and common economic policies within Asean. A country that advocates freedom and democracy on the global stage is imposing a moratorium on natural gas exports, forcing foreign mining companies to take on majority national stakes and limiting foreign ownership of national banks. There is also growing concern about the shrill voice of Islamic militancy that reflects a powerful domestic constituency of conservative religious sentiment. Islamic zealotry sells well and helps win votes – even if it is unlikely that an Islamic party could ever gain power. This has amplified the voice of hardline groups calling for international jihad against Myanmar over the treatment of its Muslim Rohingya people. These obstacles and shortcomings notwithstanding, Indonesia's good intentions and largely selfless diplomatic efforts can be held up as a rare example of a powerful nation putting the interests of others before its own.
Michael Vatikiotis - Straits Times
The writer is the Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue based in Singapore. Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times