Monday, October 25, 2004

Black May 1998: 6th Commemoration (39 of 40)

SBY Through Chinese Eyes
By Jeffrey Robertson
Asia Times (Thursday, October 14, 2004)

An ex-military, US-educated president may seem like a stroke of strategic luck for Washington. But looking at Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or SBY, through Chinese eyes reveals a different story.

Yudhoyono, Indonesia's first president chosen through direct elections, has a staggering popular mandate. After a gruelling eight-month campaign marked by tempestuous debate, the odd intrusive interview and no less than three electoral contests, Yudhoyono has the confidence of the Indonesian people - but what are his policies?

The majority of commentators have noted that the election campaign was run largely on character rather than policy detail. And indeed, few details exist beneath the catch-phrases of fighting corruption, restoring economic growth, invigorating job creation, improving education and enhancing security. Even fewer details exist regarding foreign policy.

Foreign policy for Indonesia, like other regional states, is growing more and more difficult to perform. It is an increasingly treacherous high-wire act that necessitates balance between an economically important China and a demanding, security-focused United States. With China laying down the foundations of what may become a future regional dominance, and the United States interested in the region only as an extension of an overt focus on the Middle East, where does Yudhoyono stand?

The election of a US-educated military stalwart in Indonesia conjures up images of happy faces in Washington, salivating at the chance to further squeeze the links of al-Qaeda hidden in the world's most populous Islamic state. Yudhoyono has visited the US no less than five times for military education and maintains good relations with political and military leaders in Australia.

Indeed, on the face of it, Yudhoyono seems to be everything the US could have hoped for. He graduated at the top of his class at the national military academy, trained with US forces - including a stint in jungle warfare in Panama, commanded an infantry battalion, served as a chief military observer with the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia, and impressed the US with his stern condemnations of terrorism as President Megawati Sukarnoputri's coordinating minister for politics and security. To an analyst in Washington, Yudhoyono holds all the punch of a 1970s military strongman a la Pinochet, with the decorations and trimmings of democracy to boot.

However, there is evidence to suggest that unless US diplomacy can be revived from its recent fit of unilateralism, Yudhoyono may yet prove to be a feather in China's strategic cap.

Throughout the election campaign, Yudhoyono touted foreign policy as an extension of domestic policy. Key domestic policies of fighting corruption, invigorating job creation and fixing the education system were expressed in foreign policy terms, such as the attraction of greater foreign direct investment, Indonesian competitiveness and the promotion of trade.

Importantly, Yudhoyono also has focused on security as a domestic problem - not one specifically requiring international cooperation. For a country such as Indonesia, this makes sense. From Jakarta, the perceived threat to Indonesian security does not come from international terrorist groups with limited local support but from long embedded, regionally popular secessionist groups, which threaten the very territorial integrity of the archipelago state.

For countries such as China and Indonesia, where the threat to security is often domestic in nature and political violence remains on the mind as a recent phenomenon, the threat of international terrorism cannot be accorded the same status as it is in the West.

Indeed for many Indonesians, the Bali and Australian Embassy terror bombings, both of which focused international attention on the country, do not compare to the threats they face every day, including communal violence fanned by regional, ethnic and religious tension, secessionist violence, or the lingering potential of a military coup.

It is this level of understanding that is absent in US approaches to combating international terrorism in the region. It is a level of understanding that may prove crucial in improving China's role in the region - along with its near-equal ability to offer economic incentives.

From all accounts, Yudhoyono is above all a pragmatist. His learned, academic nature, and his military experience, combined with his humble, devout Islamic background make him a man unlikely to embrace bold change. This gives China the upper hand.

The US seeks immediate change in Indonesia's efforts to control international terrorism within its borders. This potentially includes the outlawing of Islamic fundamentalist group Jemaah Islamiyah, greater controls on religious schools and action to ensure the conviction of prosecuted terrorists. US and Australian approaches in these areas have in the past placed undue pressure on Indonesian governments, essentially weakening their position to carry out the desired changes.

China's aims in the region are more long-term. It seeks to promote China's position on territorial integrity - specifically regarding Taiwan, continue pragmatism regarding the South China Sea territorial disputes, establish a secure and stable regional energy resource and more closely integrate the economies of China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). These aims are conveniently congruent with Yudhoyono's policy aims and, if anything, will empower him and China to achieve more.

Without a change in US diplomacy, the choice for Yudhoyono will be between the immediate and unpopular dogmatism of the "crusade" on terror, or the long-term pragmatism and shared understanding of a rising China.

After the appointment of his cabinet early this month and a formal acceptance speech during his inauguration on October 20, the next indicator will be which way Yudhoyono heads on his first major foreign visit - East or West?

Note: Jeffrey Robertson is a political-affairs analyst focusing on Australian relations with Northeast Asia. He currently resides in Canberra, Australia.

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