Indonesia can talk from a position of confidence to everyone, from its ASEAN cousins to western powers, and also countries such as Egypt and Tunisia

In a continent dominated by behemoths like China and India, the archipelago of Indonesia can sometimes find itself in the shade. But increasingly, this populous, Muslim-majority democracy is feeling confident enough to assert its presence on the international stage — and with good cause.

It is South-East Asia’s largest economy and has been averaging a brisk growth of 6 per cent in recent years. With a youthful population of over 240 million people and a burgeoning middle class, the country’s transition from military dictatorship to vibrant democracy has put paid to notions that Islam and democratic values cannot coexist. Moreover, while size gives it clout, Indonesia does not have direct stakes in the rivalries that roil the region. It is therefore a natural choice for the crucial role of mediator in a neighbourhood increasingly shaped and squeezed by China’s rise on the one hand, and the United States’ “pivot” to the region, on the other.

At the high table

Indonesia’s new international stature was on display in October when, in a two week-period, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono played host to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, in between hosting leaders from Russia to Japan at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum held in Bali. Mr. Yudhoyono’s foreign policy formulation of “a thousand friends and zero enemies” suddenly appeared to be more than overheated rhetoric.

The APEC summit was immediately followed by more summitry in Brunei as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Plus Three meetings got under way. The issue du jour at all of these meets was the one where Indonesia’s bridge-building skills are most needed and have been most obviously on display: the South China Sea.

With fierce disputes breaking out between an ascendant China and many of ASEAN’s 10 members, notably Vietnam and the Philippines, it is Indonesia that has emerged as the soother of ruffled feathers. It nods understandingly at the concerns of all parties, while nudging them towards dialogue.

Last year, tensions within ASEAN reached a high when for the first time in the group’s history, a meeting of Foreign Ministers failed to yield a joint communiqué. The issue behind the split was China’s actions in the South China Sea. Those members with disputes in the waters themselves — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, supported by Singapore and Thailand — rooted for the voicing of serious concerns over Beijing’s “belligerence” in enforcing its claims over the Spratly, Paracel and other islands and atolls. However, non-claimants, mainly Cambodia supported by Laos, were loath to alienate China and refused to countenance any measures that Beijing would object to.

With ASEAN in crisis, the Indonesian Foreign Minister began flying from regional capital to capital, to mend the rift. Eventually, all ASEAN members were persuaded to agree that the best course of action would be the formulation of a code of conduct (CoC) between ASEAN and China, on how to manage disputes in the waters, a position backed by the United States.

Even more impressively, Indonesia was able to persuade Beijing to somewhat modify its traditional stance that any CoC be negotiated bilaterally, rather than multilaterally with ASEAN. China has agreed to consider the possibility of multilateral talks. It is a vague commitment, but one that has served to tamp down tensions — which was Indonesia’s main goal.

As Dr. Evi Fitriani, head of the International Relations department, University of Indonesia, says, “We are aware that we cannot solve the dispute, but we can help manage it.” With no obvious dog in the fight, Jakarta has ably exploited its unique position, persuading everyone from China, and other ASEAN members, to the U.S., to heed its efforts as an honest broker.

In Myanmar

Indonesia’s foreign policy USP (unique selling point) is low-profile diplomacy that seeks to nudge rather than demand. And it prefers the back door to the limelight. She cites other examples of this “quiet diplomacy.” Jakarta played a crucial role in easing tensions between Cambodia and Thailand in their border dispute over the area surrounding the 11th-century Preah Vihear Temple. It eventually sent in a team of observers to monitor the territory.

Again, Indonesia has played a quiet, advisory role to Myanmar as the latter attempts a democratic transition from military dictatorship to democracy, which in many ways mirrors Indonesia’s own transformation 15 years ago. “We don’t carry a megaphone about it, but both state and non-state actors from Indonesia and Myanmar have been in close contact,” says Dr. Fitriani.

Experiences

Indonesia derives its diplomatic strength from its own experiences. As a Muslim-majority country that has made a successful, if difficult, transition to democracy it can talk and make suggestions, from a position of confidence, to everyone. These range from its ASEAN cousins to western powers like the U.S., and even countries like Egypt and Tunisia as they struggle in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Since 2008, Indonesia has held the Bali Democracy Forum, an annual meeting that seeks to strengthen democracy in Asia. This kind of preaching is more often undertaken by prescriptive actors like the European Union. But since it comes from another Asian country, participants, even the less-democratically inclined among them, tend to be more open to listening than might be imagined. “We share the same culture and problems as other Asian countries which makes our opinion more relevant to them, than lectures from European countries who have a completely different context,” agrees Dr. Fitriani.

As a result, Indonesia has calibrated, without breaching the principle of non-interference in the affairs of other countries, usually a red line in this part of the world. It has emerged as the country that talks most forthrightly about issues like human rights. It was instrumental in pushing through the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, although the final outcome was weaker than many hoped for.

Challenges

Compared to Asia’s largest powers, China and India, Indonesia’s foreign policy is subtle. China is widely perceived to be nationalistic and aggressive, a goliath with a club in one hand and contracts for lucrative trade deals in the other. This is a strategy that might win it some accomplices but few lasting friends. India’s arrogance and inflated sense of its self makes it a reluctant and less-than-effective actor in multilateral fora. Indonesia, however, seeks strength in alliances and valorises mediation away from the spotlight.

Of course the country is not without its challenges. It is difficult to be everyone’s friend in a polarised world. Were conflict to break out in the South China Sea, for example, Indonesia’s policy of equidistance would no longer work. Moreover, a worsening domestic track record, with the economy in a slump, and accusations of growing intolerance against minorities, will rob it of the hard-won moral authority it has gained over the last decade. Testing times lie ahead for the region’s quiet diplomat.

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