Indonesia flexes its diplomatic muscle

Updated On: Mar 06, 2007

Indonesia has regained much of the confidence it lost during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and it is beginning to flex its diplomatic muscle more at both international and bilateral fronts.

Last week, the Jakarta Post – citing an unnamed government source – claimed that Indonesia will not support a Western-sponsored initiative for the United Nations' Security Council to impose fresh sanctions on Iran over its nuclear plans.  Indonesia itself has also ongoing plans for civilian nuclear development.

Such a move comes in the light of Indonesia’s mere two-month old membership in the Security Council, but it does not run against the original intention of the country to play a multifaceted balancing role, alongside other objectives such as developing a moderate Muslim democracy, and active involvement in the non-aligned movement.

Besides the UN Security Council, Indonesia is also making the headlines with several bilateral moves. Just two weeks ago, Jakarta hosted officials from Myanmar for talks not just aimed at enhancing bilateral ties, but also to push the nation towards democratisation. And last week, Indonesia said it had invited Hamas and Western representatives to talks in Jakarta this month in a bid to persuade the militant group to moderate its position and help end a crippling economic blockade of the Palestinian government.

Elsewhere in the area of non-traditional security threats such as the bird flu pandemic, Indonesia stopped providing the World Health Organisation (WHO) with its flu samples, accusing WHO of using it commercially.  The “standoff” with the World Health Organization (WHO) was only resolved recently after the guarantee made by WHO that  the specimens will not be used commercially.

Nationalism is also back on the boil judging from recent Indonesian moves towards its two closest neighbours, Singapore and Malaysia.

The strongest political wave comes from Indonesia’s engagements with Singapore over the sand ban and its reverberations on territorial sovereignty. According to Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Minister Freddy Numberi, the current stance is that the sand exports to Singapore will not resume until the latter settles its pending border disputes (especially in areas to the west and east of Singapore in light of current economic zone expansions) with Indonesia. Furthermore, the sand export ban, if lifted, will be subject to price re-negotiation and environmental assessments. "Politically we banned the export of sand because we wanted it to have a larger economic value and we also wanted to settle our border disputes with Singapore," Numberi said. 

Vice Chairman of the People`s Consultative Assembly (MPR) AM Fatwa has urged the government to be more serious in handling border areas and outer islands in anticipation of transgression by other countries.  He made the remark in response to the sale of sand to Singapore for its land reclamation project. He also called on the government to intensify supervision in the implementation of the ban and take firm action against violators.

As a demonstration of Jakarta’s will, the West Navy Fleet Commander Col. Denny Noviandy said the Indonesian Navy has seized 13 ships on February 6 and 22 when they were heading to Singapore to smuggle sands. "We will continue to carry out patrols because continuous exploitation and exports of sand will cause great losses for Indonesia," Denny said. Singapore’s foreign minister, George Yeo, earlier said in response that Indonesia had no grounds for banning sand exports and regretted that the sand ban may be linked to treaty negotiations, calling such a move counterproductive.

On another issue of territorial sovereignty with its neighbours, Indonesia has taken a tough stand on the Ambalat tussle with Malaysia. According to Executive Director of the Indonesian Strategic and Defense Studies Rizal Dharma Putra, Indonesia should use diplomatic channels but also build up its arms to face Malaysiawith regards to the Ambalat question in order to increase its bargaining position.

According to the spokesman for the Eastern Fleet Command Lt. Col. Tony Syaiful, Malaysia had repeatedly violated Indonesian territorial waters and air space, especially in the Ambalat block since February 24 this year.  A meeting of the parliamentary commission on defence and foreign affairs was called yesterday (5 March) to discuss the border spat with Malaysia over the disputed oil-rich region in the sea of Borneo.  The dispute over Ambalat took a turn for the worse two years ago, when Malaysia's state oil company Petronas awarded an oil concession to a subsidiary of oil giant Shell in an area where Indonesia had been granting oil concessions.

In the Indonesian parliament hearing yesterday, MPs called for a tough line on reported Malaysian military incursions, with two MPs saying Malaysians on the wrong side of a disputed border should be shot.  

'Once in a while we need to shoot them,' said Mr Soeripto, a member of the parliamentary commission on defence and foreign affairs at a hearing with Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono and armed forces chiefs at the House of Representatives yesterday.

And his call for the intruders to be shot was echoed by legislator Permadi, of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). Don't be afraid if something escalates from the shooting. We have four million volunteers who are prepared to die,' he was quoted as saying by news portal Detikcom.

Using more restrained language, deputy chairman of the commission Sidharto Danusubroto told the meeting that Jakarta's lack of response to the alleged incursions was encouraging the Malaysians.  Navy Chief, Slamet Soebjinato told Suara Pembaruan daily that Malaysia had redrawn its maritime borders at Indonesia’s expense.

Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) Chief Air Marshal Djoko Suyanto offered a more tempered view, however, as he said the navy had not tightened security and there will be no change in the rule of engagement in the Indonesian-Malaysian border waters.  (6 March 2007).


Jakarta MPs talk tough on intrusions (The Straits Times, 6 March 2007)

John McBeth “A revitalized nation has new spring in its steps” (The Straits Times, 1 March 2007)

Indonesia should take two steps to solve Ambalat issue (Antara, 2 March 2007)

SingaporeIndonesia narrow differences over defence co-operation pact: Official (TODAY, 3 March 2007)

Indonesia and Australia to host regional anti-terror meet (The Straits Times, 3 March 2007)

Navy seizes 13 sand ships heading to Singapore (Antara, 3 March 2007)

Singapore told no sand until border disputes resolved (Antara, 3 March 2007)

WHO: Global pandemic vaccine stockpile would help ensure poor nations not left out (The Jakarta Post, 3 March 2007)

Jakarta going about its UN role with zeal (The Straits Times, 3 March 2007)

AM Fatwa: govt should be more serious in handling border areas (Antara, 2 March 2007)