He came, he saw, he scampered
Does anyone in Washington know anything about Indonesia? Clearly not, or White House staff would have urged State Secretary Mike Pompeo to enjoy fall in Washington. So there must be another reason for a 32,000 km round trip other than to escape Trump’s tirades.
Jakarta in the wet season is awful. Apart from overcrowding, humidity, pollution and chaotic traffic the rains swell the still-uncontrolled Ciliwung River flooding scores of streets. It’s an annual event, and like aged care in Australia, about to be fixed.
Then there’s faith. Arriving for meetings during an extended public holiday to celebrate Maulid Nabi Muhammad (the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday) in the world’s most populous Muslim nation is downright rude.
The plump US politician isn’t into respect. He came to hector the natives to trust Uncle Sam rather than the Big Panda even though his audience knows more about Red Threats than the former CIA director has had regrets.
Communism has been banned in Indonesia since the 1965-66 genocide of maybe more than half a million. To suggest someone has Marxist leanings is like alleging paedophilia and just as damaging.
Why did Pompeo persist?
Senior editor Kornelius Purba at The Jakarta Post reckoned Pompeo was engaged in an impossible mission ‘to persuade, or more precisely, to pressure Indonesia to work closely with the US in cornering and isolating China, which is Indonesia’s most important trading partner’.
Despite being on a religious break the Indonesians stayed hospitable. President Joko Widodo and FM Retno Marsudi told Pompeo, again, that Indonesia’s position hadn’t changed.
Smoothing out the same script from her September meeting with the American, Marsudi said: ‘I re-emphasized the need to pursue inclusive cooperation amid this challenging time, and I underlined the need for every country to be part of the solution in the collective contribution toward world peace, stability and prosperity.’
Unlike the Chinese who’ve promised Corona-19 vaccines should any become available, the Americans brought no gifts – apart from warning of the evil from Beijing, much like his predecessors feared the Yellow Peril.
With the story of Pompeo’s visit on page one, The Jakarta Post thought it prudent to run a highlighted panel alongside saying the daily ‘will include four pages of news and commentary published by China Daily... the Post is not responsible for the material and information contained in the four pages.’
In Britain The Daily Telegraph has stopped publishing China Watch after a decade, claiming it’s paid propaganda designed to influence English-language media.
There’s no deep love for the Trump administration in Indonesia, which has already had its trade clobbered through the US deleting the archipelagic nation from the list of developing and least-developed countries. The Republic that Pompeo is smooching has been cut off from the special differential treatment available in the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures.
Had Pompeo done more research into the region’s history he’d have seen little need to preach hate for the hammer and sickle in Jakarta. ASEAN was formed as an anti-Communist block in 1967, enthusiastically driven by second President Soeharto, then deeply in Washington’s pocket.
According to international relations academic Yohanes Sulaiman from West Java’s Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani, the Republic’s foreign relations strategy has three elements: A ‘constructed past’ which helps unite a diverse population, the story of the struggle for independence with the military taking a central role, and the ‘free and active’ foreign policy stressing non-alignment.
‘This combination creates a strategic culture that abhors the idea of military pacts, viewing them as a threat to independence; emphasizes a defensive orientation; and fears interference by foreign countries, making the country wary of any outside power growing too strong or unchecked in the neighbouring region.’
By population and economy, Indonesia is the biggest of ASEAN’s ten members. Local politicians try to boost its influence, credentials and potentials, but in reality it’s just an elite dining club. Meetings are in English, a national language only in Singapore.
There are no military pacts – this is not an Asian NATO. Countries aren’t allowed to participate in each other’s internal affairs, so after each gathering, they compete to issue bland statements and banal photo line-ups.
The ‘ASEAN Way’ of doing business means solving problems through compromise, consensus and consultation, the so-called cultural practices of the region. Till now little has been made public for fear of causing upset.
That suddenly changed when Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, suggested Cambodia and Laos should be booted from the clique for getting too close to China.
In a Webinar last month he said: ‘True neutrality means knowing your own interests, taking positions based on your own interests and not allowing others to define your interests for you by default.’
A group of unnamed ‘retired and active Cambodian diplomats’ responded in the weird language of ad hominem assaults: ‘We were expecting a more intellectually rigorous piece but instead we find it a bit sensationalist, inconsistent and at times contradictory.
‘But what we find repulsive is his arrogant and condescending tone, not just about our country, Cambodia, and Lao PDR, but even towards our current ASEAN Leaders, a behaviour unbecoming of a former diplomat.’
Singapore is hardly neutral. It recently renewed an agreement allowing US American troops to use its bases until 2035. Britain has a presence on some the island’s military sites, exploiting its old Commonwealth links, something the US lacks.
Another ASEAN member Brunei has Brits on its soil, a light infantry battalion and some choppers. It’s a handy training ground for jungle warfare, along with the Butterworth base in Malaysia - also an ASEAN member. About 50 Australians are on-site, rising to 350 during exercises.
But none of these outposts are what the US wants – big airfields to hold and launch fighters and refuellers – and he’ll not get landing rights in Indonesia.
There are moves to get Timor Leste into the ASEAN mix and occasionally Australia waves a hand. The old Portuguese colony has some chance. We have none. We claim to be part of Southeast Asia and seek closeness, but the locals think otherwise.
Any country with a crowned head from Europe on its currency and the Union Jack on its flag is not independent. Australians can argue otherwise with hard historic facts, but for Indonesians, pictures tell all.
First published in Pearls and Irritations, 2 November 2020: