Catharin Dalpino on Indonesian Foreign Policy and the G20 Presidency

Catharin Dalpino is Professor Emeritus at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where she taught courses in Asian Studies and in US foreign policy. She has also taught at the State University of New York-Albany. Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; George Washington University; Simmons College; and Seton Hall University. For five years she was Director of Georgetown University’s Thai Studies Program. From 1993 to 1997 Professor Dalpino was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. She has also been a Fellow at the Brookings Institution; a Resident Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Associate at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy; a Visiting Scholar in Southeast Asian Studies at SAIS; and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. From 1983 to 1993 Professor Dalpino was a career officer with The Asia Foundation, and was the Foundation’s Representative for Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. In that capacity, she re-opened the Foundation’s programs in Laos and Cambodia after a hiatus of fifteen years. She was the founding director of the Aspen Institute Program on Agent Orange in Vietnam (2007-2009), which urged the US Government to provide assistance for Vietnamese affected by exposure to dioxin during the Vietnam War. Professor Dalpino is the author of two books about US foreign policy and numerous articles and journal chapters. She has testified before Congress, on both the House and Senate sides, more than a dozen times.
Nadine Zahiruddin '24 interviewed Dr. Catharin Dalpino on on September 23, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Catharin Dalpino.

Indonesia has the political and diplomatic advantages of being a non-aligned, active, and strategic middle power that can potentially drive more impactful and actionable G-20 resolutions. How can Indonesia take advantage of this G20 presidency to drive real change?

The G20 is not the non-aligned movement, obviously, but it is the most prominent economic forum that has both developed and developing countries in its 21st century configuration. It has to be said that Indonesia’s hopes of focusing the agenda on economic assistance in the wake of COVID, climate change, even perhaps, influencing WTO reform, have been greatly complicated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Indonesia is following the lead of its predecessor in 2014 for the G20 Chair, Australia, when Western countries pressured them to expel Russia from the G20 because of its actions towards Ukraine, namely the annexation of Crimea. Jakarta has made clear that it's not even going to try to move towards any expulsion of Russia and the West has pretty much settled on that. We will see whether there is a repeat at the summit in Bali in November, with Western representatives walking out when the Russian representative walks in. Just this week, the stakes became much higher with Putin’s threat of nuclear war related to the referenda in the Russian occupied territories of Ukraine.

It calls into question how useful a meeting of the G20 can be, other than to set the stage for political drama. Jakarta is well aware that there isn’t any particular resentment it will face for its position. With that said, it does constrain what can come out of this meeting. Even so, however, we have seen dramatic evidence of the impact of climate change this summer around the world, so there is this actual substantive agenda. As much as it wants to, Jakarta will have a hard time pushing forward the substantive agenda.

Indonesia has a history of passive, non-alignment foreign policy where it simply expresses hopes and concerns in response to the prevailing geopolitical and strategic challenges. What steps can Indonesia take to ensure that it takes a more active role on global issues, especially climate change?

Let’s consider non-alignment and how it has changed. The non-aligned movement in the 1950s was more of an ideological movement than it is now. It had, understandably, a distinctly anti-colonial ideology, because these countries were for the most part just emerging from their colonial past. Around the time of the famous Bandung Conference, which was so definitive, there was the Sino-Soviet split. About the same time, you began to see more signs of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union. By the mid-1960s, it was pretty clear that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union wanted to go to war involving nuclear weapons with one another.

The non-aligned movement was trying to balance all powers and not aligning with any of the great powers. It was far more difficult for Southeast Asian countries because they were the hot war of the Cold War period, from the 1950s to the early 1970s. What you saw after the fall of Saigon in 1975 was a shift in attitudes towards the United States in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. This was due to the assumption that those dominoes could fall. Thus, the non-aligned movement took a back seat and a more pragmatic approach began. Non-alignment has always been an ideal and has become less likely, as things shift. Indonesia was never interested in going into a formal alliance with the United States, but it proved to be flexible and pragmatic in the 1970s. After the Cold War in the early 1990s, the world became not aligned for a while. Economics redefined relations, not security. That's where non alignment stands now.

Climate change is very interesting; there are three ways Jakarta is attempting to take a leadership position in this. It has a good chance of succeeding too, given its population size and vulnerability to climate change as well. Firstly, it will try to bring as much political weight to bear as it can, including in the G20 meeting, to get the developed countries to make good on their pledges in the Paris Agreement in terms of economic assistance to the developing countries. Secondly, Indonesia is going to have to leave coal behind, as it is still wedded to coal, and the speed with which Indonesia does it will serve as an example to the region and to the world. Lastly, Indonesia has the ability to lead the region by example on nuclear energy, and we have seen this emerge over the past year. Several months ago, Indonesia announced to the world that it had reached an agreement with an American energy company to develop nuclear floating reactors to develop electricity offshore, and this has helped energize the debate over nuclear energy in Southeast Asia.

How has Indonesia’s position and role changed in ASEAN in recent years?  Is Indonesia assuming a more active role in the bloc?  Where can Indonesia’s leadership make a difference on issues important to ASEAN?

It is well known and accepted that before 1998 and before Indonesia's political transition, that Indonesia was an informal leader in ASEAN. This was partly because of Suharto's long tenure, but mostly it was because of the Foreign Minister Ali Alatas. He served as a mediator among the ASEAN states. There will be expectations for Jakarta, when Indonesia takes the chair in January, that it will reprise that role. This will be an opportunity for Indonesia to solidify its leadership of ASEAN, albeit in the crucible of the Myanmar Crisis.

The United States welcomes Indonesia's rotation into the chairmanship for this and other reasons, but you will see a lot of expectations coming from the West that Indonesia will perform in a certain way on the Myanmar crisis. The international community will still try and not recognize an official government in Myanmar even into 2023 for many reasons. One reason is that, despite the claims from the national unity government to be the legitimate representative of Myanmar, in fact no one is a legitimate representative of Myanmar. The international community will try to avoid having to recognize the illegal government in Myanmar, as will ASEAN. Nobody wants to be part of a proxy war, in what is obviously a very, very difficult internal insurgency. That said, the military has announced that it intends to hold elections in 2023, presumably after it has decimated the opposition. That will make it more difficult because it will divide ASEAN over whether it should recognize a government that comes out of a sham election. Indonesia certainly has its work cut out for it.

Indonesia has been walking a diplomatic tightrope on issues of regional security and great power rivalry. China is Indonesia's biggest trade partner and a major source of foreign investment. On the other hand, the US and Indonesia have maintained good diplomatic relations. How should Indonesia navigate this tightrope between the two countries? What are the chances that Indonesia will take sides in the U.S.-China rivalry?

Let's talk about security and counterterrorism, because security for Indonesia is also counterterrorism. Indonesia, of course, is not a claimant to the South China Sea but it is part of the nine-dash line that China has set out. Both Malaysia and Indonesia probably have better security relations and more extensive security relations with many countries than people realize; they just don't advertise them. There are domestic political reasons and geostrategic reasons why they don't advertise them. That said, I think that Indonesia is beginning to feel the walls closing in on it in terms of maritime security because of their geostrategic position.

Indonesia recently invited other Southeast Asian maritime states to participate in joint exercises, but did not invite China. Indonesia is signaling the direction it will take. It won’t pretend this threat from China does not exist. One of the strategies that Indonesia employs, which other countries are employing too, is not to choose between the United States and China but instead to broaden the base. You will see a lot more cooperation with Japan, India, Singapore, and Australia. Indonesia's instinct is not to choose between two powers but, if it can, it will fan out, particularly in maritime security. The danger is that the US-China rivalry will become so sharp that it is going to be difficult to include the United States in these multilateral exercises. That said, Indonesia is not going to be on the hot seat if there is a military conflict that erupts in the Taiwan Straits. 

The current G-20 presidency could signal a crucial turning point in Indonesian history and Indonesian foreign policy. What do you think will be the outcome of the G-20 presidency in Indonesia? In your opinion, where will Indonesia stand in global politics after this year’s presidency concludes?

If Indonesia is able to advance any of its goals on climate change funding or things like that, it will get a lot of credit for doing so in an extremely difficult environment. That said, I am not sure how much that's going to elevate Indonesia in the international community. Indonesia's effectiveness in multilateral diplomacy will be judged on its performance as the ASEAN chair in 2023. And of course, the Ukraine issue probably isn't going to go away and who knows what the situation will be with Russia and Ukraine, at the end of this year. It could get worse. Again, it's a rotational chair for twenty countries. Yes, Indonesia will get credit for a job well done, but it won’t necessarily provide a path upward. If Indonesia were to become one of the BRICS, that would be something different, but it's not a BRIC. Sometimes there is a perception in the international community that, given its size, Indonesia tends to punch below its weight. That may be a consequence of this non-aligned kind of foreign policy.

However, let's get back to what the current state of the international system is. This is no longer a classic Cold War set of blocs. There is a lot more room to maneuver. Look at China and India this month, distancing itself more from Russia because of Ukraine. It is not in China's interest to ally too closely to Russia. Quite frankly, China has a much brighter future than Russia does. So, there are short-term political and economic considerations. Indonesia will have to make efforts to raise its profile in the international community. I don't think it's going to happen naturally. And here we get back to that non-aligned stance as well. Non-alignment is a very good position to be in, in the Southeast Asian metric. However, that's not how countries prove their leadership on the world stage today. 

Nadine Zahiruddin CMC '24Student Journalist

U.S. Department of State from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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