Saturday, September 3, 2011

Wake Up, Indonesia - Learn from Wikileaks

Reading the latest US diplomatic dispatches released by WikiLeaks, one tends to focus on the salacious details, such as discussion of corruption among Indonesian elites. It is not surprising, then, that many people immediately latched on a cable that noted Washington’s approval of nine ministers in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s cabinet. Even though the cable simply suggested that these ministers might be friendly to US interests, critics jumped upon this revelation as another proof of growing US influence in Yudhoyono’s cabinet.

Yet, such knee-jerk reactions to the cables obscured many things more revealing and more troubling in terms of Indonesia’s national interest, notably the short-sightedness of Indonesia’s policies and an inability to anticipate the reactions of its neighbors, which, in the end, undermined the nation.

One of the most interesting revelations in the latest batch of diplomatic cables centers on the strategic Strait of Malacca. On Nov. 19, 2008, the US Embassy in Singapore noted the Singaporean government’s disapproval of Indonesia’s plan to impose more control on navigations in the strait.

What Indonesia planned to do was to launch a “pilotage program [a method of easing navigation] for ships transiting the Malacca Strait” that would be in effect from Iyu Kecil Island to Nongsa Batam in Indonesia’s territorial waters south of the Malacca Strait. Indonesia argued that the program would prevent environmentally damaging accidents and keep international navigation safe in the strait. Indonesia argued that the program had its precedent in the Euro Channel, the Baltic Sea and the Torres Strait.

Nevertheless, the Singaporean government demurred. Singapore is afraid of “mission creep” — the possibility that after Indonesia found its new program to be highly profitable, it would extend the scheme to various parts of Indonesia, which would contravene Singapore’s interest, as it would slow down traffic considerably (e.g. to pick up Indonesian pilots to help guide a ship), not to mention various legal liabilities such as Indonesian pilots entering Singapore’s territorial water.

Even though the program was voluntary due to the lack of trained pilots, Singapore did not fail to notice that Indonesia would collect fees for the service and thus Indonesia had a huge incentive to expand the program and make it mandatory to have Indonesian pilots traverse Indonesian waters.

Unmentioned was the obvious dent on Singapore’s profit as the fees and the slowdown would cut into Singapore’s fast and efficient trade.

Since the program was implemented in Indonesian waters, Singapore could do nothing to stop it. What it could do was to enlist support from various countries that would be affected by this program and create a broad multilateral opposition that would persuade Indonesia to drop its plan.

Not surprisingly, Singapore decided to enlist Australia in its opposition to the proposed plan. A cable from the US Embassy in Canberra dated Oct. 27, 2008, noted that just five days earlier Singapore, which had been opposing Australia’s similar pilotage policy in the Torres Strait, suggested to Australia that it would drop its challenges in an international court in exchange for Australia’s support for “a broader effort to convince Indonesia to back away from its Strait of Malacca proposal.”

Even though Singapore was convinced that the “Torres Strait regime is incompatible with international law” and the regime itself is anathema to Singapore’s interests in maintaining free and unrestricted navigation rights all over the world, the Strait of Malacca is paramount to Singapore’s strategic interests, and thus it was willing to give up its opposition on the Torres Strait in exchange for Australia’s support on Singapore’s position.

The cable also noted that Australia strongly opposed Indonesia’s pilotage program, even though Australia admitted what Indonesia had been doing was simply copying Australia’s own program in the Torres Strait. Australia argued that its regime in the Torres Strait was accepted by Papua New Guinea and it was in accord to international law, unlike Indonesia’s plan, which was opposed by Singapore.

It is unclear what happened next, but it is safe to assume that the program might be discontinued due to several factors, ranging from international opposition to bureaucratic confusion. On June 14 this year in an opinion piece for Batam Pos newspaper, Jasarmen Purba, the Indonesian lawmaker from the Riau Islands, lamented the pilotage program being stalled due to the lack of attention from the Indonesian Department of Transportation and the Indonesian government’s failure to understand the importance of the Strait of Malacca.

It is easy to accuse and blame both Singapore and Australia for perfidy in this matter. By doing that, however, Indonesia missed a larger and more important issue, which is the constant inability of Indonesia to pursue its policies effectively. The reasons are many, but two of the most important reasons are the lack of preparation and an overemphasis on image at the expense of results.

As noted by S. Jayakumar in his book, “Diplomacy: A Singapore Experience,” Indonesia’s largest fault lies in the lack of attention to detail on policies, with the nation instead focusing on diplomatic posturing. He used as an example the extradition treaty, which Indonesia desperately wants. Even though Singapore stressed that after the treaty was signed, it did not mean automatic extraditions because there were still many legal hurdles, Indonesia was adamant in getting this treaty signed, for the sake of publicity back home.

In the end, such diplomatic posturing only backfired. Indonesia’s neighbors, worried about the country’s unexpected, erratic and often unratified policies, decided to gang up to thwart Indonesian policies they believed were contrary to their interests or to manipulate the policies to fit their interests. In the extradition treaty argument, Singapore understood that Indonesia was desperate for this treaty, resulting in its demand that Indonesia sign the Defense Cooperation Agreement in exchange for the extradition treaty.

In the end, Indonesian diplomatic personnel would be wise to start reading the WikiLeaks dispatches in order to understand that many of Indonesia’s knee-jerk policies only damages its interests. It is time for Indonesia to take its foreign policy seriously, lest it lose more of its prestige abroad.

By Yohanes Sulaiman lecturer at the National Defense University. He can be reached at

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