Special Report

Indonesia Between the Reefs

The world's most populous largely Muslim country, manuevering between Beijing and Washington, D.C.

By 4.21.10

On September 2, 1948, at the height of the Indonesian War of Independence, the prime minister of the nascent southeastern Asian nation, Mohammad Hatta, delivered a deservedly famous speech to the Central Indonesian National Committee, at that time seated in the ancient Javan city of Jogjakarta. In the address, which was given the title "Mendajung Antara Dua Karang," or "Rowing Between Two Reefs," Hatta would call for an Indonesian diplomasi based upon two pillars: anti-kolonialisme and politik luar negeri bebas-aktif (an independent and active foreign policy). According to Hatta, who along with President Sukarno led a revolutionary government locked in a savage struggle with the forces of the Netherlands Indies Civil Administration, Indonesia's viability would depend on both nationalistic perjuangan (struggle) at home and pragmatic diplomacy abroad. Indonesian foreign policy, Hatta maintained, "should be resolved in the light of its own interests and should be executed in consonance with the situations and facts it has to face." Despite decades of domestic upheavals and international sea changes, Indonesian foreign policy has, as the analyst Rizal Sukma put it, "always been conceived and justified within the two basic principles."

While in 1948 Prime Minister Hatta was referring to the United States and the Soviet Union as metaphorical coral reefs, it is obvious enough that in recent decades the People's Republic of China has taken on the latter's role as a politico-economic force in the Pacific with which to be reckoned, obliging countries like Indonesia to once again plot a pragmatic course between competing superpowers. It is unsurprising, then, that the Republik Indonesia -- the world's fourth most populous country, the third most populous democracy, and the most populous predominately-Muslim nation -- should become the particular focus of intense international attention.

Hatta's admonition on how best for Indonesia to negotiate the fringing reefs of international politics should be borne in mind as the Southeast Asian republic prepares to take center stage in the coming months. Recently Indonesia has been laying the foundations for two important official state visits, with President Barack Obama having scheduled a March 23-25 visit, and China's State Council Premier Wen Jiabao having planned on attending an April 23-24 summit in order to conclude a bilateral economic and trade agreement, though as it happens both meetings have been postponed (with President Obama choosing to stay home to concentrate on the passage of the health care bill, and with Premier Wen being forced to attend to the aftermath of a massive earthquake in Qinghai Province). Nevertheless, when the two delayed summits finally come to pass in the near future Indonesia will no doubt find itself the subject of much discussion in the halls of power in Beijing and Washington, D.C., as befits a country of appreciable strategic value.

Indonesia-watchers are perpetually on the lookout for indications, however subtle, as to the manner in which Indonesia's relations with China and the United States will evolve. Thus much has been made of a late March rally in Jakarta hosted by the transnational Islamic organization Hizbut Tahrir that featured the anti-American objurgations of, amongst others, former army chief Tyasno Sudarto, during which the retired general's insistence that "We should do what China has done; America must follow our rules" was met with cries of "God is Great." The Washington Post's Andrew Higgins was quick to take notice of the event, which "brought together two groups of Indonesians that don't usually mix -- fervent champions of an Islamic state and zealous secular nationalists," and concluded that the event marked "a curious shift in thinking by Islamists and hard-core nationalists," who are increasingly united, we are told, by a "shared fury at Washington and the hope that Beijing can put America in its place."

A caveat is in order before considering the "curious shift" on display in the Jakarta ballroom several weeks ago. It would be unwise to place undue emphasis on the statements of General Sudarto, a public figure who can hardly be seen as a representative of secular nationalist Indonesians. After all, four years ago the general was seen sporting a white Arabic robe while demonstrating alongside Hizbut Tahrir members during the Danish cartoon controversy, hardly the behavior of an ardent secularist. Having previously been implicated in a massive 19.2 billion rupiah counterfeit money ring, it was inevitable that Sudarto would look for new sources of ideological succor. This does not mean that the former army chief's involvement with Hizbut Tahrir's anti-American agitation should be entirely overlooked, however. As Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore has demonstrated, Hizbut Tahrir has "gone out of its way to forge ties with key figures in the Indonesian military," including General Sudarto and General Wiranto, and has thereby "gained access to the Indonesian military," with Hizbut Tahrir "leaders are often featured as speakers at religious talks and sermons organized at various military institutions," all in the hopes of "reviving the Caliphate." Osman has concluded that the Indonesian military tolerates Hizbut Tahrir's role, given that the organization's "ideal of trying to unite all Muslims" may be instrumentalized in subduing breakaway provinces like Papua or Aceh.

The first pillar of Indonesian foreign policy, anti-kolonialisme, thus takes on added significance, albeit in a state much altered from the days of the struggle against the Dutch. During a May 21, 2009 Hizbut Tahrir conference in Jakarta General Sudarto told the approximately one thousand activists gathered in an auditorium in the Wisma Antara building that "Indonesia is still colonized and not independent [Indonesia saat ini masih terjajah dan tidak mandiri]," and was "no longer politically sovereign or economically self-sufficient [tidak lagi memiliki kedaulatan politik, tidak mampu berdikari dalam bidang ekonomi]." Less than ten months later Sudarto would again appear at a Hizbut Tahrir conference, ominously for the current American administration entitled "Menolak Obama," or "Rejecting Obama." (The president's childhood years in Jakarta were insufficient to endear him to that particular organization, it would seem.) It was only a matter of time before like-minded Indonesians latched onto the idea of rejecting the West, emulating China, thereby forcing the American hegemon to "follow our rules." Whether the anti-western, pro-Chinese re-orientation sought by these hard-liners is actually a viable option is doubtful, but attractive to many just the same.

In decades past, such a shift would have been unthinkable. China's alleged involvement with a 1965 anti-government coup, which resulted in a counter-coup and unthinkable bloodletting over the following six months, poisoned Sino-Indonesian relations for decades to come. Diplomatic ties were frozen in 1967 and would not be officially resumed until August 8, 1990. As late as 1982 Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, Indonesia's foreign minister, could bluntly state that "We all agree that ultimately the biggest threat is China," while the threat of pogroms was, as a result, ever-present for Indonesia's Chinese community. The infamous anti-Chinese riots of May 1998 were only the most prominent of these terrible outbreaks of violence. In a study of the normalization of Sino-Indonesian relations the scholar Justus van der Kroef cited a "melancholy chain of such events" throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including "bombings by Muslim extremists of Chinese-owned banks and shops in the commercial heart of Jakarta," "anti-Chinese riots on Sumbawa island, where dozens of Chinese shops were torched and ransacked by angry mobs," "an anti-Chinese rampage in Pakanbaru, Central Sumatra," "extensive anti-Chinese riots in several Central Javanese towns, including Surakarta and in the provincial capital of Semarang," and "three days of anti-Chinese riots in Surakarta, Pekalongan, Kudus, and, again, spreading to Semarang" in November of 1979. During the 1998 riots it was not uncommon to see signs on shops bearing the words "Milik Pribumi," or "Native-owned."

Given such widespread animus, Andrew Higgins is right in cautioning that "wariness of China has far from vanished," though he finds that it is "now balanced by esteem for its economic achievements and its role in shifting the balance of power in world affairs in Asia's favor." It is here that the second pillar of Indonesian foreign policy, the "independent and active" doctrine, comes into play. As Budiono Kusumohamidjojo of the Parahyangan Catholic University in Bandung recently wrote, "there is no eternal friend or foe in the relations among nations," as "foreign relations are not a matter of like or dislike but rather a question of necessity." While many Indonesians view China and the Chinese diaspora with distrust, and take pride in historically-remote events like the Javanese Crown Prince Raden Vijara's thirteenth-century defeat of Khubilai Khan, the exigencies of Realpolitik may render historical animosities moot, at least at the national and international level. History, after all, is often treated as mutable, and can be finessed if so desired, hence the description of the upcoming visit of Premier Wen to Indonesia as a celebration of the "sixtieth anniversary of their establishment of diplomatic ties," notwithstanding the fact that during nearly half of that period (between 1965 and 1990) those relations were effectively suspended.

With growing animosity within the Indonesian body politic towards the "Washington consensus," and growing affection for the "Beijing consensus," one can anticipate something of a balancing act to unfold, one to which American policymakers should be sensitive. All is not lost, of course. Indonesia has relished its role as a perceived Pacific bulwark of democracy and capitalism, and the November 2006 visits by President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prompted, in the words of Ann Marie Murphy, "both sides [to] agree that U.S.-Indonesia relations today are the best they have been in decades, after years in which the bilateral relationship was marked by disputes over the International Monetary Fund's role in Indonesia, impunity of the Indonesian military, and the war in Iraq." Recent comments by Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, indicate that the Comprehensive Partnership Agreement that President Obama and his Indonesian counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, intend to sign in Jakarta in June is intended to revitalize the relationship, though stumbling blocks remain.

Aside from economic differences and a mounting Indonesian inclination to accommodate the growing Chinese role in the region, the running sore of Indonesian-American military-to-military relations continues to fester. Following a brutal crackdown by Indonesian military and paramilitary forces in East Timor (now Timor Leste), and given lingering concerns about other Indonesian counter-insurgency campaigns which bore names like Operasi Tumpas ("Operation Annihilation"), the United States Congress passed the Leahy Amendment, which stated that "None of the funds made available by this Act may be provided to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that such unit has committed gross violations of human rights, unless the Secretary determines and reports to the Committees on Appropriations that the government of such country is taking effective measures to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice." Indonesia, having little desire to bring responsible members of its security forces to justice, has been denied special forces training cooperation and arm sales (though counter-terrorism funding continues apace).

In recent weeks the Obama and Yudhoyono administrations have begun talks regarding the establishment of a special training program for Indonesia's elite Komando Pasukan Khusus, or "Kopassus," units, notwithstanding the Leahy Amendment, and, when asked about a potential lifting of the training ban, the former Indonesian Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono recently told the Jakarta Post that "It's just a matter of time, [maybe] a couple of months." Arms sales are still limited, however, and Indonesia has been obliged to look to Russia and China for access to weapons systems; in 2005 China agreed to provide technical assistance to Indonesia's defense industries, "including aircraft and ship building, as well as co-production of small arms and ammunition," and even missile technology, according to a Jamestown Foundation report. Whether this amounted to "playing the China card" in an effort to convince American officials to drop the embargo is unclear, but as Chinese military technology improves one can expect this alternative to become even more attractive to the Indonesian military. The United States will increasingly be called upon to balance humanitarian ideals with the requirements of Realpolitik. Indonesia's strategic significance is such that the latter may very well prevail in the medium- or long-term.

The Republic of Indonesia -- that bewilderingly diverse land of 17,508 islands which, in Multatuli's immortal words, "wind about the equator like a garland of emeralds" -- has long seen itself as something of a nation "in training," a term Oswald Spengler used with respect to those polities capable of shaping their own and their region's destiny, but only after a lengthy limbering process. Since 1948 the Indonesian state has assiduously erected and strengthened the two pillars that have enabled the republic to prepare to take what it deems its rightful place in the community of nations. The first, a longstanding policy of anti-kolonialisme, for better or worse ensures that Indonesian relations with the United States will never be without turbulence, while the second, the bebas-aktif doctrine, likewise ensures that Jakarta will never submit to a Chinese influence often described as "neo-tributary." That being the case, Indonesia serves as a sort of geopolitical barometer in the Pacific region, and its behavior in the coming months and years will function as an indicator of the relative strength of the United States and China in the region. Long accustomed to "rowing between two reefs," Indonesia will be conducting a clinic in the application of a realist foreign policy, and its shifts and oscillations, "curious" or otherwise, should and will garner considerable international attention.

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About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.