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)