RI urged to toe the line of foreign policy

The Joko “Jokowi” Widodo administration is expected to take a more active and leading role in resolving the protracted territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) as a way to assert the continuity of Indonesia’s foreign policy tradition, a visiting US scholar said on Thursday.

Donald E. Weatherbee, an advisor to the non-profit organization United States-Indonesia Society (USINDO), said the Indonesian government had failed to apply to the principles of bebas-aktif (independent and proactive) diplomacy when it came to the SCS dispute, sparking debate on whether the leadership of Jokowi had altered the state’s long-held stance on foreign affairs.

The principle is the main component of Indonesian foreign policy, which was drafted by the country’s founding fathers including vice president Mohammad Hatta during Indonesia’s infancy. This stance was most discernible when the country decided to remain neutral and co-establish the Non-Aligned Movement during the height of the Cold War.

Weatherbee said that Jokowi’s take on the SCS dispute had all but confirmed the qualms of many that the President was not savvy or informed enough on global affairs.

“One area where it is not at work [...] is in the issue of the South China Sea — Indonesia has been passive and dependent,” he said during a discussion at the University of Indonesia (UI) in Depok, West Java on Thursday.

The Southeast Asia expert said that actually Indonesia had real national interests at stake in the outcome of the dispute, which had to do with “long-range Chinese ambitions for domination in the SCS.”

“Indonesia is not doing enough to address it [the SCS dispute],” he said.

In spite of continued attempts from the US, Japan and their allies to push the implicit leader of ASEAN to play a more active role in resolving the dispute and to counter any support for China, Indonesia has insisted on remaining neutral in the dispute.

In a strong denial of the “passive” label, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Arrmanatha Nasir said in a separate occasion that Indonesia was definitely active in pushing for a resolution of the SCS dispute.

In a recent trip to the US, Jokowi reiterated the need for all countries involved in the dispute to comply with international law, avoid unnecessary posturing and implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS, also known as the DOC.

Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) researcher Adriana Elizabeth brushed aside the notion that Indonesia was passive, arguing that the country had acted consistently within the confines of its foreign policy.

“What’s most important to Indonesia is that it had provided a forum, facilitated discussion and avoided open conflict,” Adriana told the Jakarta Post.

“Why should we have to give a response to China on behalf of [US] interests [when we have no stake in the dispute at all]?”

The DOC was signed by all ASEAN members and China in November 2002, to establish mechanisms to prevent crises and reduce tension amid conflicting territorial claims to the SCS that have contributed to instability in the region.

Under the DOC, all parties are required to jointly establish a code of conduct (COC) as a more binding instrument on how to resolve and prevent the conflict from escalating into a fully fledged war.

Weatherbee argued that progress had been slow in the completion of COC. As a “humble suggestion,” Weatherbee proposed that Indonesia pursue a solution through a maritime affairs context and convene the maritime states of ASEAN, with perhaps bringing Australia into the fray.

“China thinks Indonesia is the most important nation in ASEAN; perhaps Indonesia should begin to act in that fashion,” he said.

Indonesia is not a claimant nation in the dispute but fellow ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam are among those that have challenged China’s territorial claims in the SCS.

China’s assertiveness in the region, particularly in the SCS dispute, has worried the US and its allies Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, that believe it could negatively affect freedom of navigation, given the strategic location of the SCS.

While China has already created a military islet in the SCS to underpin its disputed territorial claims, the US has pledged more firepower to the region.

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