How can South Korea strategically use the present time to strengthen its ties with Indonesia?

By Noto Suoneto

Credit: Okezone News

COVID-19 pandemic has not only given the profound impacts on the global economy and politics, but it has also brought up more dramatic escalation to the U.S. -China rivalry. The inflaming tension between these major powers has revealed the cracks of foreign policy stances of many countries. The blaming game of the Western nations with China has reshaped our geopolitical map. Two of the most notable developments are the relations between Australia and China with the trade sanctions and political blame over the origin of coronavirus and the recent changing diplomatic gestures of the Philippines with the United States.

The present time is evidently different than the Cold War in the 1980s, whereby countries were assuredly divided between capitalist and communist nations. Nowadays, the competition over power has gone beyond the ideological-based division. This is the competition of influence, either in national politics, security, economy, or even the socio-cultural aspect of a country.

Speaking about influence, undoubtedly China and the United States are at the forefront of this competition. As the 2ndlargest economy in the world, China has become more consequential than ever before. The U.S. under Trump’s presidency with his anti-globalization and anti-multilateralism movements has become a severe disruption to global peace and stability.

Furthermore, the U.S. and China are arguably competing for its influence in Southeast Asia and Indonesia is no exception.

In the vigilant relationship with China, Indonesia is very much affected by the domestic-driven factors that are inherent to what Evan Laksmanastated as triple China threat “Communism, Indonesian Chinese, and Beijing”. Indonesia has always been trapped in the inevitable barriers to developing closer ties with China by those factors. The deepened relations with Beijing by our leaders are politically labeled as a “threat” to Indonesia’s national security and political stability. The recent poll by Lingkaran Survei Indonesia (LSI)found that 36% of Indonesians view China brings a bad influence on the country, rising from the same survey in 2016 accounts for only 16%.

This political trap has deceived the opportunities of both nations’ relationship by the fact that China is the biggest trading partner of Indonesia with $27.1 billionin 2019 and one of the highest investors to the country just slightly below Singapore and Japan. With this complicated fact, Indonesia needs to always be careful in navigating its foreign policy towards China.

Meanwhile, the U.S.- Indonesia relationship under President Jokowi and President Trump can’t even be seen better than what we have with China. Dr. Dino Patti Djalalargued that the relationship has even lost its “soul”, measured by the dwindling diplomatic interaction between two leaders and the trade relationship that was stagnant for a decade. The recent data shows that the U.S. just numbered 3rdin Indonesia’s top trading partners list.

Politically, Indonesians will always allergic to the notions of liberalism. A word that has always been associated with the Western nations especially the United States. The U.S. definitely has a political burden in dealing with Indonesia mainly with the religious conservatives’ power. According to the same poll by LSI, Indonesia’s unfavorability towards the states is not significantly improved even worsening from 28% in 2016 to 30% in 2019.

Two major powers associated to two words that have undesirable values in Indonesia. Anti-liberalism in this country is almost as strong as anti-communism, I must argue. Strategically, the present condition is a priceless opportunity for South Korea to strengthen its ties with Indonesia.

I am not saying that South Korean needs to compete with the U.S and China. But, considering the privileges by no historical and political baggage in its relations with Indonesia — South Korea needs to work it out more than what both countries have expected at present.

Indonesia and South Korea are the rising middle powers also grouped in the MIKTA. Indonesia is the largest economy in Southeast Asia and South Korea is Asia’s fourth-largest economy registered US$1.64 trillion in GDP by OECD data. With its advanced industry, technology, and human resources of South Korea and the abundant natural resources and productive age of Indonesia, two nations have a great future together. Indonesia and South Korea are also relatively mature democracies with the rules of law as the way to govern their political system. These similarities are definitely can’t just be taken for granted.

In the inauguration speechof President Jokowi for his second term, he prioritized human resources and infrastructure development, social protection, and education. Meanwhile, President Moon in his New Year speechhighlighted the concerns about the state of the economy at the top of the priority, especially job employment. Arguably, two leaders have common national agendas and priorities, both of them are highly concentrated on the economy and people’s well-being.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in unveiled the “New Southern Policy”a future-oriented foreign policy strategy of the pivot to Southeast Asia and India in 2017. It has a definite purpose to diversify South Korean foreign policy and also elevate its position to ASEAN nations including Indonesia. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-whahas even said Indonesia is the center of this policy, re-affirming the importance of Indonesia to make this NSP successful.

NSP is a good way to become the “rail” of strengthening the relationship, but we need the “train” which can move faster. I am bravely argued that President Jokowi is not interested in the conceptual notion of South Korea of its pivot to the region and with all the three pillars of NSP. President Jokowi prefers a concrete and tangible result, also real and coherent with his domestic interests which are economic and human resource development.

IK-CEPAis the right platform. The ambition to enhance the trade relationship between two nations for $30 billionby 2022 has successfully grab President Jokowi’s attention to South Korea. As prioritized by Indonesian foreign policy under Minister Retno, economic diplomacy will always be the forefront of Indonesian relationships with other countries.

On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has told ASEAN that the dialogue partners including South Korea is even more important than before. At the time of this health crisis, South Korea who has relatively successful in dealing with the pandemic has recently given aid to ASEAN worth around $5 millionfor coronavirus detection capacity. And through its embassy in Jakarta, South Korea has sent massive health-related goods to help Indonesia fight against the virus. As a clear pattern from previous disasters, Indonesia will not forget its friends during a crisis.

As COVID-19 has weakened the global trust in multilateralism, Indonesia and South Korea should cooperate together in promoting the spirit of international cooperation. Through G20 for instance, both countries should address the most compatible solutions for global economic recovery plans. The trade tensions between Korea with Japan & Indonesia with the European Union as the challenges of international economic cooperation should be solved. In the security aspect, Indonesia as a member of the UNSC and the de facto leader of ASEAN has always been a strategic partner for the Moon’s plan to engage North Korea in the peace process.

What can Indonesia and South Korea do together with other than economic and politics?

Of course, through its people (also the pillar of NSP). The positive acceptance of Korean culture by Indonesians can be translated into stronger cultural and people diplomacy. Those can be the gateways but it is not enough.

Considering the intensity of Islamic influence and values to Indonesia’s foreign policies, the South Korean government needs to consider developing more strategies in engaging the Islamic-based organizations. It should be done through programs that are not affiliated to the ideological and political transfer. Human resource development is the key. South Korean advanced technology and digitalization and the plan for Indonesia’s government to develop the skills of its students are matched. Education programs to Madrasah, or Islamic-based schools and universities in Indonesia should be more developed.

The interaction between academics should be enhanced. The understanding of Indonesian scholars to Korea remained minimum and overshadowed by how much our academics know China or Japan. The academicians are the key actor in giving enrichment and assessment to government policies. In fact, an intellectual exchange can be useful to evaluate the effectiveness of NSP in Indonesia. Each of the ASEAN nations has its own characteristics, the personification of strategy in dealing with Indonesia can be supported by the understandings of the academics.

As we know, education and the creative economy have become the concerns of Jokowi’s second-term. Meanwhile, South Korea is reputably the best education in Asia and the creative economy has been the backbone of South Korea’s economic expansion. South Korea should invest more in the education partnership with Indonesia. With a progressive and young Education Minister, Nadiem would be more than happy to do it with Seoul to achieve his mission. As for the culturally-rich country, Indonesia has much potential in developing music, performance, and arts. The knowledge to integrate culture with modern society is the challenge and South Korea is undoubtedly the right partner for this. This is also in line with investing more in youth, as this industry mostly conducted by young people.

So, with those circumstances and opportunities, it’s never been better than the present time to develop more cooperation between Indonesia and South Korea. The closeness of President Moon and Jokowi have also become the main supporting factor. Don’t wait until the regime change and we will then lose its “soul”.

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