Indonesia’s wholly inadequate response to Russia’s war on Ukraine

No one who has observed Indonesian foreign and strategic policy probably needs reminding of how differently Jakarta sees and engages with the world to the way Australia does. But in responding to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal and indefensible assault on Ukraine, Indonesia’s foreign ministry has reminded us anyway.

The official statement from Indonesia’s foreign ministry (Kemlu) is a masterpiece of its genre.

The first two of its five points correctly affirm some fundamental concepts with which Australia and other like-minded nations can readily agree. They refer to the principles of the United Nations charter, ‘including respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty’, which Indonesia insists ‘must continuously be upheld’.

The statement describes the military attack on Ukraine as ‘unacceptable’, and, given that nearly 200,000 invading troops replete with tanks, war planes and other instruments of death and destruction are staging it, makes the unarguable point that people’s lives will be put ‘in grave danger’.

With the same crystalline insight and logic, it asserts that the attack ‘threatens regional as well as global peace and stability’.

So far, so good. But matters take a turn with points three and four of the statement.

‘Indonesia calls’, it proclaims, for ‘this situation’ to end and ‘further calls on all parties to cease hostilities and put forward peaceful resolution through diplomacy’.

It ‘urges’ the UN Security Council to ‘take concrete steps to prevent the situation from further deteriorating’.

It’s in the nature of the beast for diplomatic statements normally to be constrained, and therefore often inaccurate and inadequate as an expression of national sentiment. The phrasing of this one should not lead us to believe that President Joko Widodo, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and millions of Indonesians aren’t as appalled about what’s happened to Ukraine as any decent Australian. Jokowi’s tweet, ‘Stop war. War brings suffering to mankind and endangers the world’, doubtless reflects his horror. And Marsudi at least tried to persuade her Russian counterpart to resolve Russia’s dispute with Ukraine through diplomacy.

But statements have their purpose. They express policy, however vague and ‘nuanced’ that policy might be, and however wilfully opaque its expression. They matter in that sense.

And any statement on the Ukraine crisis that, like Indonesia’s, fails even to mention the word ‘Russia’ in it and to identify it as the aggressor is more than inadequate. As a statement of policy, it is fatuous and darkly risible.

More to the point, it is disingenuous. The Jokowi administration surely knows that both sides aren’t to blame for a war that Russia started and that Ukraine strove to avoid. To insist that Ukraine cease hostilities when it is only defending itself from the naked aggression of a revanchist tyrant is more than naive. It smacks of deliberate myopia.

This is doubly the case coming from a country that places so much store in its own sovereignty and bridles at any threat to it, real or perceived.

It also wouldn’t have escaped Marsudi’s attention that, notwithstanding the appeals of most of its members for Russia not to attack, the UN Security Council is hardly able to heed Indonesia’s appeal to take concrete—if undefined—steps to stop Putin from making matters even worse when Russia is a permanent member of the council and happens to be its current president.

In this context, it’s worth remembering how Indonesia responded to news that Australia intended acquiring nuclear-powered submarines sometime in the distant future.

It had no qualms then about identifying the villain of that piece in its eyes.

The statement it rushed out identified Australia by name four times and implied that Canberra was irresponsibly accelerating an arms race and being cavalier about its obligations under various international instruments, even though Australia has not violated any of them and has no intention of doing so when and if its boats sail.

It had certainly not invaded its neighbour on the premise that it had no sovereignty by virtue of being only an error of history and thus having no right to exist.

So, why is Indonesia again exemplifying the adage that there is none so blind as he who will not see—or that there is none so mute as he who will not state the obvious?

The answer as ever lies in a blend of policy orthodoxy and self-interest, as Kemlu spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah revealed in a press conference on the matter.

After being careful to condemn abstractly ‘every act which is a clear violation of territorial integrity and sovereignty of a country’, Faizasyah clarified that Indonesia had no intention of imposing sanctions (impliedly on Russia) because, ‘We will not blindly follow the steps taken by another country.’

At first blush, this comment reflects Indonesia’s oft-reiterated obedience to its ‘free and active’ foreign policy, albeit with a gratuitous, defensive tone in this case.

But Faizasyah’s subsequent remarks—‘We will make a decision based on our domestic interests and … whether sanctions would solve anything’—betray the more transactional character of the Jokowi administration’s foreign policy. And as he went on to explain, ‘We see time and time again that sanctions do not mean the resolution of a particular issue.’

The interests Faizasyah referred to weren’t specified but were presumably economic in the main, irrespective of how realistic Indonesia’s hopes for Russia in that domain might be. Last June, Indonesia’s trade minister, Muhammad Lutfi, followed Jokowi’s instructions to boost trade with the country’s non-traditional partners by visiting Russia for bilateral talks as well as a meeting with the Eurasian Economic Union. And while Moscow remains far from being among Jakarta’s largest trading partners, bilateral trade has grown significantly in recent years, with palm oil making up 40% of Indonesia’s exports to Russia.

Indonesia has also been keen to attract Russian investment, and the two countries have been exploring cooperation on Covid-19 vaccine production. And as any visitor to Bali in recent years can confirm, flows of Russian tourists to the centrepiece of Indonesia’s tourism sector, which the Jokowi administration is desperate to revive after Covid, have been among the heaviest from anywhere (nearly 160,000 arrived in 2019).

Indonesia–Russia defence ties have also long been significant, notwithstanding Jakarta’s decision to drop Russian Sukhois from its options for new fighter jets. Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto’s hosting of the first-ever ASEAN–Russia joint maritime exercise last December in Indonesian waters  underscored the Jokowi administration’s interest in consolidating a relationship with a power that has served as an important source of weaponry for Jakarta and many of its ASEAN colleagues.

If nothing else, after Putin’s assault on Ukraine, hopefully Jokowi will at least be more circumspect in his public remarks about Russia and its place in the Indo-Pacific region. Last year, he pretended that Russia might play a positive role through its ASEAN ties in strengthening ‘strategic trust’ in Southeast Asia, ‘maintaining stability, peace and prosperity’ and mitigating the risk of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific region.

And, ideally, at least a few other eyes across ASEAN are no longer so ready to blind themselves to reality, as was evidently the case at last September’s Russia–ASEAN summit. The joint communiqué proclaiming both parties’ commitment to the principles of ‘a rules-based framework’, ‘respect for sovereignty’ and ‘respect for international law’ now looks even less in synch with the truth than many others.

But Australia should have no delusions about where Indonesia, along with other ASEAN nations and our Quad partner India, will stand when it comes to taking whatever ‘concrete steps’ are feasible in responding to Russia’s brutal repudiation of the very principles to which Jakarta claims such adherence.

And of the lessons Canberra should draw from this, two should be the most obvious.

The first is that if Indonesia is not even prepared openly to condemn Putin’s Russia for attacking Ukraine, it will certainly do nothing, even rhetorically, that might jeopardise its ‘domestic interests’ should China attack Taiwan. Those interests far exceed any Indonesia has in Russia.

The second is that while we can and should keep working to make the most of our comprehensive strategic partnership with Indonesia, Australia should remain clear-eyed about just how truly ‘strategic’ a partner Indonesia is set to be for the foreseeable future, and deal with it accordingly.

Otherwise, we’ll be as detached from reality as any statement about Russia’s being a ‘buffer of stability and peace’ or that calls for Ukraine to give peace a chance.