Indonesia Election 2014: Big foreign policy changes unlikely after polls

Indonesia Election 2014: Big foreign policy changes unlikely after polls

JAKARTA - Indonesia's next President will have to attend to domestic issues before looking at foreign policy but he will not have much time, with several big international meetings taking place soon after the Oct 20 swearing-in ceremony.

These include the Apec summit in Beijing on Nov 10-11 and the G-20 Leaders Summit in Brisbane just a few days later.

How the new President acquits himself at the meetings - or even if he will attend - will give an idea of his administration's stance on foreign relations, panellists said at a dialogue on Saturday on how next month's general election will affect the future of Indonesia's foreign policy.

The April 9 polls will be followed by the presidential election in July, when voters in the world's most populous Muslim country will elect a new leader to succeed President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Jakarta governor Joko "Jokowi" Widodo from the Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle is currently leading in polls, with Gerindra party's Mr Prabowo Subianto and Golkar party's Mr Aburizal Bakrie trailing behind.

"Indonesia's foreign policy should be balanced between political and economic diplomacy in ASEAN," said panellist Beginda Pakpahan, an expert on international relations at the University of Indonesia.

The current policy has focused on political diplomacy, such as helping Myanmar with its transition to democracy, and not enough on domestic economic development, added Dr Beginda, who was speaking at the premises of Habibie Centre, a non-governmental organisation.

Ms Lina Alexandra, senior researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, noted that presidential candidates prefer to talk about bread-and-butter issues such as the cost of living because these are constituents' top concerns. Foreign policy often does not figure in their campaign speeches.

But whoever becomes President must understand the foreign policy challenges that they will face, she added. For instance, how will Indonesia try to balance the rise of China and maintain its sphere of influence in Asia?

The country faces increasing pressure for freer trade and a regional economy, with an ASEAN Economic Community set to be created next year.

But Indonesia - ASEAN's largest economy and the only G-20 member - also faces opposition from local businesses which fear they will be disadvantaged by the influx of foreign products should Jakarta open its market further.

The four-member panel, which included ruling Democrat Party MP Hayono Isman and Mr Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post, does not see major changes in Indonesia's foreign policy. But Mr Meidyatama expects nuanced differences.

"You are seeing the best of the last part of Indonesian foreign policy for some several years to come bcause the next President will not have the passion, will or self-vanity for foreign policy the way that SBY has over the past 10 years," he said, referring to Dr Yudhoyono, who has placed an emphasis on contributions to global peacekeeping and regional stability, for instance.

The new President will continue to see ASEAN as a cornerstone of Indonesia's foreign policy, but his attention and focus will not be the same, he added, and "because of that, perceptions of Indonesia's commitment to ASEAN... will be questioned".

But "good foreign policy highly depends on good domestic conditions", said Ms Lina, which is why whoever wins in July will likely make domestic issues his first priority.

casschew@sph.com.sg


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