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Indonesia seeks nothing in return for its global peace and foreign aid efforts. It should

President Joko Widodo (foreground, second from right), flanked by then Vice President Jusuf Kalla, welcomes Afghan and Pakistani mullahs to the Trilateral Ulema Conference held at Bogor Palace in West Java, Indonesia. Wahyu Putro A/Antara Foto

Last month, former Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla revealed his current efforts to broker a peace deal between the Afghanistan government and Islamic fundamentalist Taliban group.

Indonesia accepted the role of peace facilitator following a request by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during his visit to Indonesia in 2017.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo returned Gani’s visit by going to Kabul in January 2018. In May 2018, Indonesia hosted the trilateral Afghan peace meeting as part of its “Islamic diplomacy”.
Indonesia’s commitment as a peacemaker in Afghanistan reflects its aspiration to develop external peace-building efforts.

However, these efforts have yet to result in tangible benefits for its national interests. Indonesia should consider developing a strategy in its peace efforts and foreign aid-giving that can achieve such benefits.

Years of efforts

Indonesia started its peacekeeping contributions in 1956 by joining the United Nation Emergency Forces (UNEF).

Since then, it has actively contributed to peacemaking and peacekeeping at the regional and global level. By doing so, Indonesia strengthens its self-projection as “a true partner for world peace”.

In the Southeast Asia region, Indonesia has been involved in various peacekeeping efforts. It became a party to the International Monitoring Team (IMT) in Southern Philippines. It facilitated peace during the Thai-Cambodia conflict in the 1990s. It also engaged with Myanmar to promote democratisation between 2011 and 2014.

This diplomatic activism has provided some basis for Indonesia to build its trajectory as a “peacebuilder and peacemaker” that contributed to regional and global peace.

Indonesia is also known for its “middle power” activism. Middle power is a term to describe a state that is not a superpower but still has significant international influence and recognition.

The country does so by projecting its soft power, through sharing democratic and conflict resolution experiences, instead of material ones such as huge military or economic force.

Indonesia, for example, is part of MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey, and Australia). This informal middle-power partnership was created in 2013 on the sidelines of UN General Assembly with the aim of improving global governance.

As an emerging donor and development partner, Indonesia also recently provided Rp36.5 billion (about US$2.5 million) in aid to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in Palestine.

This effort resonates with Indonesia’s values of promoting South-South Co-operationand soft-power diplomacy by giving help (instead of receiving).

The launch of Indonesia AID (IndoAID) in 2019 also marked a shift from an aid recipient to an aid provider.

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What’s in it for Indonesia?

Measuring the impact of this activism is not easy due to the intangible nature of Indonesia’s contributions, such as the positive image of the country as “a true partner for world peace”.

However, Indonesia should not dismiss the need to assess what these efforts can contribute to its national interests.

In the authoritarian New Order era (1966-1998), for example, Indonesian foreign policy tended to refer to the “concentric circle”. The immediate region – such as Southeast Asia – was the core of its foreign policy focus.

Even after the fall of the regime, some of Indonesia’s activities are still based on this concentric circle.

These include activities in Pacific Islands – such as initiating the Indonesia-South Pacific Forumin 2019, and engaging with Timor Leste after its independence from Indonesia in 1999. There has also been an effort to tame the support for West Papua separatists.

Indonesia’s aid to Palestine is a normative commitment based on anti-colonial solidarity. It is also returning a favour as Palestine was the first entity to recognise Indonesia’s independence back in 1945.

More importantly, after surviving its messy democratic transition, which began in 1998, Indonesia asserted itself as the largest Muslim moderate country under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-2014).

Contributing to the Afghanistan peace process is an articulation of this identity. It also contributes to the global movement for combating radicalism.

Compared to traditional Western developed countries and other emerging peace actors and donors, Indonesia is unique.

Underpinning its engagement is a solidarity-based movement while adopting a low-profile image with no profit-seeking attitude.

Foreign policy and national interest can indeed contribute to Indonesia’s image-building and identity-based solidarity. But the country needs to evaluate further how these efforts could benefit its own interests.

These direct impacts can take the forms of better market access, greater trade preferences, and higher people-to-people interaction.

These more tangible impacts will transform into political leverage. In doing so, the country could further promote its values, such as democracy and peaceful conflict resolution, to other countries.

In this regard, Indonesia should consider bolder engagement with countries within its concentric circle.

These close neighbours are often only part of the country’s short-term priorities. At times they are even neglected. Its immediate neighbours, such as Myanmar, are examples of countries with bigger stakes to engage with.

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The way forward

Indonesia should strategically craft its aid and peace activism to gain tangible benefits.

Seeking tangible benefits is not always a zero-sum game. Thinking about national priorities when conducting aid and peacekeeping activism can lead to a win-win solution.

It will help Indonesia create a long-term and deeper engagement instead of creating short-term, one-off events. At the same time, it will empower others.

To achieve this, the Indonesian government, especially the Foreign Affairs Ministry, should engage more with think-tanks, academics and other stakeholders, including private citizens, to better formulate its aid and peace activism.

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