Jakarta. Over the past year, Indonesia’s foreign policy objectives have not only become more visible on various international platforms, but also strengthened the country’s regional leadership.
Under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the country showed its commitment to peace, especially by addressing the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar and in its steadfast support for Palestine after the United States’ controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
At the beginning of 2017, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Indonesia aims to intensify trade and investment cooperation, particularly with African and South American countries. Diplomacy supported these efforts. Indonesia also played a role in combating terrorism and transnational crime.
During the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Indonesia emerged as the regional bloc’s natural leader, reinforcing the organization’s relevance and calling for more unity among member states.
As Indonesia aims to become a leading maritime power, more coordinated efforts have been undertaken to speed up development and face possible challenges in the maritime sector.
Palestine and Rakhine State
Indonesia’s support for Palestinian independence and sovereignty has been visible on the international stage. It became even more vocal when US President Donald Trump made the Jerusalem announcement in early December.
Indonesia has prompted the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to hold an emergency summit meeting on Dec. 13 to address the issue, which resulted in a joint statement calling on the United States to reverse its decision.
“The OIC must firmly reject the unilateral decision [by the United States]. A two-state solution is the only solution, with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine,” Jokowi said during the summit.
Both Jokowi and Retno said on multiple occasions that support for Palestine is at the heart of Indonesia’s foreign policy.
“The Palestine issue is not a religious issue. It is not only in Indonesia’s interest to support Palestine, but it matters for the whole world that justice should prevail – justice works, justice matters and we have to show it,” Retno said during a seminar in Jakarta on Dec. 18.
Indonesia was involved in more than 150 aid programs for Palestine in 2017. In the near future, this assistance will focus on economic empowerment and the establishment of water purification facilities.
Trade Minister Enggartiasto Lukita said Palestinian products will be exempt from import duties from the beginning of this year.
Indonesia has also been active in addressing the humanitarian crisis that saw more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims flee from Myanmar’s Rakhine State to neighboring Bangladesh.
The United Nations has described the situation in Myanmar as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” with the high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, calling it a genocide.
Indonesia was the first country allowed to enter Myanmar with the International Committee of the Red Cross to bring humanitarian aid. It also initiated meetings with Myanmar leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
“Indonesia chose not to sit tight and shout, but instead used diplomacy [in Rakhine State] with the purpose of helping all the victims and prevent the situation from escalating further,” Retno said after one of the meetings on the Rohingya crisis in October.
Despite Indonesia’s help to refugees from Rakhine State, it is not certain to what extent the government of Myanmar will act in accordance with recommendations, as both countries belong to Asean and Indonesia must adhere to the association’s principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.
However, advocacy and engagement in conflict resolution in Rakhine and Palestine make a case for Indonesia’s efforts to secure a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for 2019-20.
Indonesia has actively sought access to non-traditional markets in Africa, South America and Central Asia, which has been central to several high-level meetings during the past year.
“In 2016, Indonesia’s bilateral trade with a number of African countries saw an increase,” Retno said at a press briefing in Jakarta on Oct. 26.
During a meeting with Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama in June, Retno pushed for a preferential trade agreement to increase bilateral trade between Indonesia and countries within the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).
According to Retno, lowering tariffs and eliminating non-tariff barriers are key aspects to increasing trade between Indonesia – which mainly exports palm oil – and countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
The archipelago nation is set to host the inaugural Indonesia-Africa Forum in April this year, which, according to Retno, will aim to facilitate closer interaction between the private sectors of Indonesia and various African nations.
Efforts to increase economic cooperation with non-traditional markets also include negotiating economic partnership agreements with countries such as Chile, which Indonesian businesspeople consider a potential jumping-off point for their products in the South American market.
Indonesia and Chile signed a comprehensive economic partnership agreement on Dec. 15, making the South American country the first to have such a deal with Indonesia.
A meeting between Jokowi and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet took place during the latter’s visit to Indonesia in May last year, which also saw the signing of a memorandum of understanding on economic cooperation and an agreement on visa waivers for diplomatic passport holders.
Furthermore, Indonesia is currently involved in negotiations on comprehensive economic partnership agreements with several countries, including the European Union and Australia, to achieve its economic ambitions.
Indonesia, as chair of Mikta – an informal partnership between itself and Mexico, South Korea, Turkey and Australia, announced that it will highlight the creative economy sector, in line with its initiative to hold the inaugural World Conference on Creative Economy in Bali during May this year.
By zooming in on the potential of its creative economy, which can serve as an asset to strengthen diplomatic efforts and contribute to development, Indonesia is on track to continue increasing its role in economic diplomacy, while also capitalizing on the opportunities offered by the emerging sector, which already contributes around 7.3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and employs nearly 16 million people.
Peacekeeping Operations, UN Security Council
Indonesia sees itself as a “bridge builder” among disparate elements in the international community, with its contribution to United Nations peacekeeping operations as one clear example of the country’s commitment to preserving peace.
The country’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations began in 1957 and in 2015, the government pledged to enhance its participation by increasing the number of its peacekeepers to 4,000 by 2019.
As of November, Indonesia had deployed 2,695 peacekeepers in conflict areas and currently ranks ninth among UN member states and first in Asean.
Indonesia is also involved in its fourth campaign for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2019-2020, the election of which is scheduled for June this year. According to Febrian A. Ruddyard, director of multilateral cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the campaign will be a top priority for the government this year.
Indonesia actively sought support for its candidacy throughout 2017, especially during meetings Jokowi and Retno held with their respective foreign counterparts.
Indonesia last occupied a seat as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2007-2008, when it played a role as moderating voice and consensus builder among members of the council.
It will likely adopt a similar role if elected, as illustrated by its diplomatic responses to various crises in the past year, particularly in the Middle East, such as its readiness to help resolve the Qatar diplomatic crisis.
Defending Palm Oil
When the European Parliament adopted a resolution on palm oil and deforestation last April, Indonesia quickly criticized the decision and said it discriminated against local palm oil production methods and disregarded the Southeast Asian country’s efforts to introduce sustainable practices.
Since then, Indonesia has grown more vocal in its commitment to sustainable palm oil, which includes promoting the commodity in a government-financed course in November for foreign participants and making a case for the continued increase in demand for the product through the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries.
Indonesia produced more than 35 million tons of palm oil in 2016, with 25 million tons of it exported worldwide. Indonesia and Malaysia jointly account for 85 percent of global palm oil output.
During a meeting between the two countries’ leaders on Nov. 22, they agreed to unite against negative campaigns on palm oil production, saying that any such measures would be seen as unfair practices to trade that may affect the livelihoods of millions of people in both countries.
Around 17 million Indonesians are employed in the domestic palm oil sector.
Jokowi and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also emphasized that measures aimed at restricting market access for palm oil would work against the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, aimed at eradicating poverty and raising income levels.
It is worth noting that in the first eight months of 2017, there was an increase in palm oil exports to the European Union, according to Vincent Guérend, EU ambassador to Indonesia and Brunei.
Guérend noted the government’s efforts to enhance the sustainability of Indonesian palm oil and said the European Union was “ready and willing” to engage with Indonesia at all levels on this issue.
“I believe there is a strong avenue for more cooperation in the best interests of both parties,” Guérend said, adding that the Indonesia-EU Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement would surely accommodate palm oil in the same way.
Indonesia has spearheaded an initiative to promote and foster regional and international cooperation for peace and democracy through the Bali Democracy Forum (BDF).
Representatives of 96 countries and seven international organizations met in Tangerang, Banten, in December for the 10th edition of the BDF to discuss how the promises of democracy can be fulfilled amid current geopolitical upheavals.
The event also saw participating countries discuss the value of homegrown democracies and emphasize the democracy is not a “one-size-fits-all’ solution.
This year also saw the BDF expand to other regions with the establishment of a Tunisian chapter in October, aimed at providing space for countries in Africa and the Middle East to discuss democratic developments in the region, identify emerging challenges and reach appropriate solutions.
According to Cecep Herawan, director general for information and public diplomacy at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, there is a possibility that the BDF will also expand to other regions, such as Europe, with Germany having shown an interest in leading the platform in the region.
Indonesia advocated for stronger international cooperation to combat illegal fishing and ocean pollution through bilateral and multilateral avenues, including at the UN Ocean Conference in New York in June, when Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan took up the role as vice president of the conference.
In March, the government released the Indonesian Sea Policy, which maps out the country’s maritime goals.
The country must conduct strong maritime diplomacy to realize its ambitions, including to tackle the issue of plastic pollution in its waters, combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and resolve border disputes with its neighbors.
In particular, Indonesia and Norway agreed to work together to combat fisheries crime, marine pollution and blue carbon during a bilateral meeting between Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti and Norwegian Climate and Environment Minister Vidar Helgesen. Norway also agreed to assist Indonesia in capacity-building and educational efforts to fight illegal fishing.
Similar partnerships were also established with other countries this year, including Vietnam and France.
As Indonesia seeks to become a stronger maritime nation, it must also work to resolve the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The foreign ministers of Asean member states and China adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the disputed waters in August. China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, while Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines each also claim parts of the strategic waters.
Indonesian officials have long insisted that the country is a non-claimant in the dispute. However, the renaming of the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone in the area as the North Natuna Sea in July has added to the regional dispute, as evident by China’s demand for Indonesia to revoke its decision.
“The China-Indonesian relationship is developing in a healthy and stable way, and the South China Sea dispute is progressing well … Indonesia’s unilateral name-changing actions are not conducive to maintaining this excellent situation,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Aug. 25.
Due to its strategic location bordering the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, Indonesia must also work out how maritime rivalry among the world’s major powers can influence its own strategic choices.
Rizal Sukma, Indonesia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ireland and the International Maritime Organization, said during a seminar in Jakarta that the country’s maritime diplomacy needs to “go beyond its current scope,” highlighting the need for a strategic reorientation of its foreign policy.
” We need to place Indonesia as a fulcrum between the two oceans,” Rizal said.