Challenges for Indonesia’s diplomatic ambition

Challenges for Indonesia’s diplomatic ambition


Special to The Japan Times

BEPPU, Oita Prefecture — Indonesia has been busy recently in a number of international events. First, Jakarta hosted the East Asian World Economic Forum from June 12 to 13. Second, the incumbent President Yudhoyono attended the International Labour Organization Conference in Geneva on June 14 and delivered a keynote speech on the so-called Indonesian success in managing labors’ affairs and industrial relations during the 2008 Financial Crisis. Third, after his Swiss visit, the president traveled to Japan for a state visit to boost Japan-Indonesia relations.

These diplomatic activities seem to mark Indonesia’s increasing achievements and strategic importance in international politics. However, the development of Indonesian foreign policies needs to be confronted by realities at home. In a small town in East Java, a mother was criticized by her community after she revealed the scandal of school-sponsored cheating at her son’s school. Corruption scandals involving one of the functionaries of the president’s party tarnished the reputation of the government. Lastly, Ruyati, an Indonesian domestic worker, was sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia without receiving a proper trial and legal assistance from the Saudi Arabian and Indonesian governments.

The irony is that all of these things happened while Indonesia is promoting an image of an economically vibrant and politically democratic nation, when at the same time the state has not been able to promote the basic needs of its citizens nor protect them from coercion.

The migrant worker topic has sparked debate in Indonesia because the issue emerged shortly after the president’s claim of Indonesia’s success in labor affairs in Geneva, which is strikingly different in the case of Ruyati’s execution. In this case, it is safe to say that discrepancies exist between foreign policy expectations and domestic realities.

Becoming a regional power, increasing strategic influence on the global stage and receiving more coverage in international media are some examples of Indonesia’s hopes in its diplomacy. On the other hand, these aspirations are hindered by domestic challenges, in particular economic and welfare inequalities, as well as corrupted power politics among politicians.

The recent situation indicates weaknesses in Indonesia’s diplomatic strategies. There is a lack of bargaining power in dealing with foreign governments, not to mention a lack of knowledge in understanding socio-cultural contexts of other countries. In the Ruyati case, for example, the Indonesian Embassy in Riyadh was not informed about the execution plan. Even before this case, Indonesia’s diplomacy with Saudi Arabia was criticized for not upholding the interests of the nation and its people working abroad.

At a basic level, the Ruyati case is a reminder of the underlying problem of the migrant workers’ issue, which involves the government’s handling of the sending of workers abroad. In Ruyati’s case, the dispatching agency changed her age on official documents so that she could be sent overseas because she was not eligible to apply for a job at her age. Therefore, what should be targeted is the fundamental cause of this issue, which is the dictate of short-sighted needs for capital gain. A consequence of this tendency is that less attention is given to protecting citizens working abroad.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of potential strengths that can be explored by Indonesia to optimize its foreign policy; one of them is the role of Indonesian diaspora overseas. Indonesian diaspora, particularly students, university professors and lecturers, intellectuals and professionals have been active in improving Indonesia’s diplomatic performance through policy dialogues, academic activities, economic deals and cultural events. This group of Indonesians living outside of the country is also active in assisting Indonesian migrant workers.

The state must incorporate the potentials of Indonesian diaspora in contributing to Indonesia’s diplomacy, especially to protect citizens who have weaker bargaining power abroad such as migrant workers.

Reflecting on the current condition of Indonesian foreign policy, several implications and points must be noted.

First, as can be seen from the case of Indonesia-Saudi Arabia relations, cultural affinities should not be the only determinants in projecting foreign policies. In an emergency situation related to the fate of citizens, as happened in the case of Ruyati, strategic interests of the nations should be prioritized.

Second, domestic politics and values are intertwined with foreign policy, especially in the post-authoritarian era, which facilitates the democratization of foreign policy. A new direction of Indonesia’s foreign policy should be able to understand this reality since foreign policy is a reflection of what happens at home.

Iqra Anugrah, a master’s candidate at the Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan, is active in the Indonesian Students’ Association in Japan and various student groups. The views expressed here are entirely his own (twitter:@libloc)

Disaster Politics and Non-Traditional Security in the Asia-Pacific

Disaster Politics and Non-Traditional Security in the Asia-Pacific

The recent series of disasters in Japan has prioritized the importance of disaster mitigation. Starting from earthquakes and tsunamis in Tohoku area which are still continuing, followed by nuclear power plant issues in Fukushima which has already reached level 7, the highest emergency level in international nuclear standards, the calamities have caused an enormous number of victims and internally-displaced people. There have been growing concerns not only in Japan, but also in the rest of the world on how to handle the situation. Putting aside the powwows in the media, there is a popular push for a greater transparency from the authorities, especially from the Japanese government and TEPCO or Tokyo Electric Power Company following their handling of Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis.

Reflecting from the Japanese experience, there are two lessons learned from this case. First, regionally speaking, the Asia-Pacific possesses the same vulnerability as Japan in facing the danger of disasters. Second, it is clear that disaster issues have a significant political and security dimension. In the discipline of International Relations, the risk of natural disaster, along with a variety of other problems such as disease epidemic and climate change, is categorized under the umbrella of Non-Traditional Security Threats or NTS. Whereas traditional security perspective focuses on state as the main agent and perpetual threat in international politics and puts more emphasis on military-based measures, NTS threats are largely nonmilitary, asymmetric, and transnational in nature. Japan’s situation is an obvious example of NTS challenge, which requires an immediate effort of “securitization”.

Politics of Disaster

To securitize and mitigate the impacts of disaster, a collaboration of state and societal responses is essential for an effective disaster mitigation policy. Despite many criticisms on the transparency of the administration, Japan has shown how the combination of sound public policy and social solidarity among citizens complemented with a good infrastructure and relief system is the key to bring about post-disaster stability.

The question that needs to be posed is how to implement such kind of policy at regional level, especially in the Asia-Pacific where there is a high level of disaster vulnerability and diverse profiles of socio-economic, demographic, and mitigation systems. The use of nuclear energy and its socio-political effects are also another factor which will also trigger various pros and cons in the public space As a geographically vulnerable region, it is imperative for every regional actor in the Asia-Pacific to develop regional mechanism to tackle NTS challenges, in order to promote regional resilience and readiness in the field of NTS, in particular to promote disaster preparedness among the policymakers as well as the citizens.

The spotlight should also be directed to the developing part of the Asia-Pacific, for instance Indonesia, the Philippines, and other countries in Southeast Asia to name a few, considering the fact that these countries, which are lacking capacity in disaster management, have been frequently affected by natural calamities, such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 and the Kestana Typhoon in 2009. In the light of this argument, the move for transnational and regional initiatives is more important than ever.

Changing Contour of Japanese Politics

The unpredictable natural catastrophe in Japan will reshape the domestic, regional, and international dynamics of disaster politics in the upcoming years in many ways.

First, compared to many other countries, even the developed ones, Japan has set the standard on disaster mitigation and the management of its impacts. The secret of Japan’s competence in maintaining social order and solidarity lies in the close cooperation between state and society, manifested in public policies and infrastructures, and more importantly, ethical values of solidarity, orderliness, and altruism. It is important to note that this spirit is not built overnight, but a result of incentive-based policies of encouraging the value of social cohesion as a virtue.

Second, the current condition of the Fukushima story indicates that although the Japanese government has done the right thing, there is a lack of transparency from the government and TEPCO in dealing with the nuclear issue. In order to gain the public trust, it is necessary to have a better communication with the citizens; otherwise the public distrust may continue to grow.

Third, the disaster has unexpectedly transformed the nature of Japanese politics. For the incumbent Democratic Party of Japan or DPJ, who is a newcomer in Japanese politics, this is a test for the party’s competency in responding to public demands. Concurrently, we also witness the rise of alternative politics and social movement in Japan, as can be seen in the latest anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo.

Japanese Lessons for Vulnerable Asia-Pacific

There are a couple of steps that can be taken into future consideration for the Asia-Pacific in the aftermath of the tragedy in Japan.

The existing regional mechanism for NTS challenges should be translated into a set of concrete policies and action plans. At the moment, ASEAN has a number of agreements on NTS. However, it is crucial to implement this instrument not only within the institution, but also with other entities as well. Joint cooperation on NTS between China and ASEAN, for example, ought to be executed in a more concrete manner.

In regards to people’s participation in disaster mitigation, what the region needs now is the state capability to integrate social solidarity in the policy framework of disaster management, as exemplified by Japan. Furthermore, the media should also act as the channel of impartial information and reporting of the truth, rather than the tool of instigating public panic. Last but not the least, enhancing the state capacity in the Asia-Pacific will be the key in coping with the hazard of disaster and other NTS threats. At the end of the day, it is the state that should act and take the lead.

*Iqra Anugrah is a Master student at Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan. He is actively involved in a number of student movements.