Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dancing to the Beat of Foreign Interest: The Failure of Indonesian Diplomacy

In response to the Constitutional Court chief Mahfud M.D.’s recent claim that Singapore had not signed an extradition treaty with Indonesia, Singaporean officials noted that the country had actually signed both the extradition treaty and the Defense Cooperation Agreement in April of 2007.

Herman Loh, the Singapore Embassy’s first secretary of political affairs, stressed that the only factor preventing the treaty’s official recognition was Indonesia’s opposition to the Defense Cooperation Agreement.

The House of Representatives failed to ratify the bill because of a clause that would allow Singapore to conduct military exercises in Sumatra.

The treaty would allow military trainings with a third party in Indonesian territory, following permission from the Indonesian government.

The language sounds innocuous enough, but it created a political firestorm here. Politicians lambasted the treaty, claiming it would violate the country’s integrity by allowing Singapore and others —under the guise of training exercises — to spy on the Indonesian military.

Singapore was adamant in insisting that both bills be signed simultaneously. With strong political opposition back home, both bills went unsigned.

This is just another in a long series of international setbacks for Indonesia, including: the inability to settle border disputes with Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, East Timor and Australia; the failure to bring about a settlement in the border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand; abuses of our migrant workers overseas and attempts to renegotiate various economic treaties that are viewed as detrimental to Indonesian interests.

From my perspective, there are three major causes of these setbacks.

Indonesian diplomats suffer a general detachment from domestic politics. Diplomats seem more interested in making deals instead of considering either the long-term impact or how to present these treaties to a domestic audience. There’s little consideration of the political ramifications of their decisions. Instead, they seemingly rely on the apathy of unqualified lawmakers and the general public to push treaties through the system.

There is also a lack of motivation among diplomats to set their own terms. Instead, they seem content to dance to a beat set by other parties, often reacting to offers made by other nations instead of actively pushing Indonesia’s interests. The Defense Cooperation Agreement is a good example of this.

The treaty, in Singapore’s view, is vital to national security. Singaporean statesman Lee Kwan Yew acknowledged the need for a strong military in his memoir “Hard Truth to Keep Singapore Going,” stating the city-state needed a strong airforce “to return blow for blow when necessary,” lest it be “vulnerable to all kinds of pressures from both Malaysia and Indonesia.”

Singapore was willing to do anything to bolster its airforce, even dangle carrots like the much-needed extradition treaty before Indonesian politicians, despite benefiting handsomely from the bank accounts of corrupt Indonesians living within the city-state’s borders.

Indonesia desperately needs the extradition treaty signed to bring numerous corrupt figures currently hiding in Singapore to justice. But, at the same time, Indonesian diplomats had no counteroffer to Singapore’s demands.

The fact that our officials even returned with a defensive treaty that would be rejected by the legislature showed how little thought they gave to the implications of such a treaty.

There seems to be a lack of political will to tackle hard-to-solve international issues, especially intricate border problems.

Instead, the country plays it safe with softball treaties stocked with broad generalities such as Asean and non-alignment movements, that won’t cause political dissent back home.

In an about face from decisions like the country’s stance on East Timor in the 1990s, Indonesian politicians seem content avoiding any controversial decisions.

The third problem is a lack of preparedness among many politicians, especially when negotiating with other nations.

The situation in Sipadan and Ligitan is a testament to this point. Even though Malaysia launched an offensive land-grab campaign, usurping two islands that were rightfully Indonesian territory, the country was surprisingly lethargic in summoning a response. Instead, politicians allowed Malaysia ample time to build a strong case, one that claimed it was actively trying to develop the disputed territory.

In return, Indonesia barely investigated whether the country had adequate evidence to support its claims of ownership.

This lack of preparedness often extends past the signing of new treaties. The country’s leaders seem to suffer from a case of collective amnesia, often signing a treaty and then forgetting to implement change until a few months before the treaty takes effect.

Instead of laying the groundwork needed when these decisions take effect, Indonesian officials wait, like they did with the China-Asean Free Trade Agreement.

The entire mess could have been avoided if Indonesia took the time to find export opportunities with China. Similar measures worked well for Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore — all saw a marked increase in exports after taking advantage of the trade agreement.

Indonesia, on the other hand, engaged in a blame game over who was responsible for selling the nation out to foreign bidders.

And further decisions, like the plan to renegotiate commercial contracts that are not beneficial to Indonesian interests, may make other countries think twice about taking Indonesia’s foreign policy at face value.

The county’s credibility is always at stake thanks to its amateurish approach to foreign policy, one that is ripe with flip-flopping, a general lack of interest and pervasive issues with the qualification of those making important decisions.

Until this changes, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s ambition for Indonesia to be a key player in Southeast Asian politics is not unlike a glutton with rotten teeth.

By Yohanes Sulaiman lecturer at the Indonesian National Defense University and a researcher at the Global Nexus Institute.

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