Sunday, January 1, 2012

China-US Showdown and Indonesian Foreign Policy

TWO TO TANGO. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is reportedly not at the same wavelength with his Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa on the US plan to build military base at Darwin, Australia. In contrast to the cucumber-cool Yudhoyono, the Australia-educated Marty insisted that the US Darwin plan would increase tension in Asia-Pacific region and create a "vicious cycle of mistrust" among neighborhood countries. 
(Photo by Ikhwan Yanuar)

Has Indonesian foreign policy transgressed from the initiative of the country’s founding fathers?

As the recent string of events in Asia-Pacific shows, the relevancy of Indonesian foreign policy of Free and Active (bebas aktif), which was once a landmark on how Indonesia dealt with its foreign policy matters in its post-independence era, is currently in question.

Strategically located in the heart of Asia-Pacific, a region where countries are currently busy stockpiling their economic wealth and bracing against each other to strengthen regional influence, early signs showed that Indonesia is currently in the brink of being insubstantial.

To lead is easier said to be done, especially when Indonesia is living in an embattled region whose influence is being fought by two powerful forces such as China and United States. Yet there is no doubt that Indonesia could do much, much better rather than “sit down and watch the battle between two giants unfolds” as its present stance suggests.

As the United States proceeds with its plan to establish a military base in Darwin, Australia, deploying roughly 2,500 US marines in the area, the standpoint of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono somewhat shows that Indonesia responds lightly to the issue.   

Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who previously denounced the Darwin plan as “creating a vicious cycle of tensions and mistrust”, was reportedly at odds with his boss Yudhoyono. Apparently, Yudhoyono sided with US President Barack Obama, the Darwin plan’s initiator who was reportedly irked with Marty’s statements and directly assured Yudhoyono during the ASEAN forum in Bali that the Darwin military base, which was only 850-kilometer away from Indonesia, was “nothing special”.

Imagine having Soekarno instead of Yudhoyono as president; then the US would think more than twice to establish a military base in Darwin.

Economics affairs might not be the best expertise of Soekarno, who proclaimed Indonesian independence and became the country’s first president yet ended up being toppled from power because of his clumsy economic management. In terms of foreign affairs, however, Soekarno’s track record is historical: He successfully put Indonesia, a young country that only gained independence a few years back at that time, in the world map.

Despite his political ideology that was more frequently associated with communism and Soviet Union, Soekarno, impressively, still managed to earn reverence from the US as well. During his presidency, Soekarno was even deemed as a daunting figure to the US. At that time under the leadership of John F. Kennedy, the US tried to “win over” Soekarno from the Soviet Union’s hands by inviting the president to Washington and providing Indonesia with billions of dollars in civilian and military aid in the early 1960s.

Soekarno, however, impressively managed to remain impartial on the Cold War that pits the US and the Soviet Union, even leading the plan to intercede the hostilities between the two countries by establishing the Non-Aligned Movement (Gerakan Non-Blok) whose members comprised of third-world countries’ leaders.

Reflecting Indonesia’s scrawny stance on the US Darwin military base issue: does Yudhoyono lean to the United States? Or is he merely being insubstantial due to his weak leadership, especially when he was benchmarked to Soekarno? If both questions are answered with a “yes”, then it’s fair to say that Indonesia is not independent and not active –thus going astray from the nation’s highly acclaimed Free and Active foreign policy.

As the last troops of US military step out from their exhausting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2012 and after will be the years when the US will focus its foreign policies –as well as its multi-trillion dollar military budget– from Middle East to Asia-Pacific.  

Bolstering influence in the Asia-Pacific and ASEAN region is especially necessary for the US considering Obama is currently eyeing to execute the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP Free Trade Agreement); an economic deal that will include the US in the free trade agreement with ASEAN.

So far, six countries in the Asia Pacific region –China, India, Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand– have implemented free trade agreements with the ASEAN. Considering ASEAN’s massive population and market potential, it is thus a rational strategy for the US to follow their footsteps in the mission to restore their tattering economy.

The world may usher the era of power transition with growing economies in the Asia-Pacific region, at the same time when the economies in the Europe and the US are declining. The boisterous economy of China’s especially leads Asia-Pacific region to become the world’s new centre of gravity, while ASEAN’s strong domestic market was also perceived as crucial to save the recession-plagued economies of Western countries.

For Indonesia, a nation that is frequently referred as the central figure in the ASEAN region, the year of 2012 would be pivotal. For Indonesian President Yudhoyono, this should be the year to revive the Free and Active foreign policy in the upcoming China-US encounter whose battleground will take place at the coruscating region of Asia-Pacific. 

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