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Foreign Minister
Indonesia Foreign Minister, Retno Lestari Priansari Marsudi. TEMPO/Dhemas Reviyanto
Tuesday, 22 August, 2017 | 19:34 WIB
Foreign Minister

TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Foreign Minister Retno Lestari Priansari Marsudi describes Indonesia’s diplomacy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a motherly style of diplomacy. Retno, 54, is the only female foreign minister among ASEAN’s 10 member nations and is often the one to initiate dialogue.

Last year, Retno urged her nine colleagues to first discuss and align stances before partaking in forums. She once again called for such an approach in the foreign ministers’ conference at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila, Philippines, early August, this time to synchronize their position on the South China Sea dispute. "There are certainly differences of opinion. But we’re one family, so we must speak as one voice," she said. 

On ASEAN’s 50th anniversary, August 8, Retno and her counterparts issued a joint statement on the South China Sea, which called to stop political maneuvers and condemned China’s land reclamation and development of military facilities in the region. 

But the communiqué’s phrasing was seen as too mild considering China’s aggression in the waters believed to hold the largest oil and natural gas reserves after the Middle East-compared to statements made by the USA, Japan and Australia, demanding China to stop all activities in the disputed region. ASEAN’s other priorities include terrorism and drug trafficking.

Last Monday, Retno agreed to an interview with Tempo’s Raymundus Rikang, Mahardika Satria Hadi and Reza Maulana at her office in the Foreign Affairs Ministry on Jalan Pejambon, Central Jakarta. The former ambassador to the Netherlands discussed ASEAN’s 50-year track record, current issues in Southeast Asia as well as President Joko Widodo’s unique style of diplomacy. 

How is ASEAN dealing with the increasingly complex South China Sea conflict?

We’ve continued to strengthen (our position) on the issue. I always tell my colleagues, the other ASEAN foreign ministers, that we should sit down together to discuss our viewpoints and positions regarding critical and crucial issues before formal meetings-among others, regarding the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula and the Al-Aqsa Mosque conflict in Palestine.

Why are countries still making claims on the waters?

There are differences of opinion as each country has its own national interest. I consider harmonizing viewpoints as a challenge.

Is this the reason the ASEAN communiqué in the Philippines two weeks ago is seen as weak? 

Not really. In fact, everyone who discussed (the communiqué) with me said it was the most appropriate statement, as it covered all fundamental principles, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) issued in 1982. For us, fundamental principles are non-negotiable. China feels it gained the upper hand because ASEAN did not firmly reject its military activities in the area. Outsiders judge the collective decision from a certain angle. Meanwhile, the foreign ministers had already viewed the substance of the statement from all angles. We don’t wish to be provoked by that judgement because, for us, the most important thing to be given due consideration are national and regional interests.

What were the primary considerations when phrasing the communiqué in regard to activities in the South China Sea?

ASEAN needs to maintain good relations with China as the region involves a variety of interests, economic, political and cultural.

What have you to say about Cambodia’s lobbying, which seems to side with China?

Different opinions will certainly emerge. If not, there would be no need for a debate. I told my colleagues: "We’re a family, so let’s debate. But once we’re out there, we must speak as one voice." Indonesia is trying to instill a sense of a unified community within ASEAN. Your role seems to be very integral. I happen to be the only woman among ASEAN’s foreign ministers, so there’s the ‘motherly diplomacy’ through initiatives regarding ideas and strategic ideas in the region. Alan Peter Cayetano, the Philippine foreign secretary, has expressed his gratitude to Indonesia on three occasions for all our initiatives in resolving deadlocks at the negotiation table.

At which points did these deadlocks occur?

Each country demonstrated its own national ego, so I took the initiative and sent a text message to the Philippine foreign secretary. (I wrote:) "Alan, we need to sit down together with our colleagues who may hold different views about the South China Sea issue so that we can address the issue with clear resolve." He agreed and I contacted the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.

Why did the Philippines’ foreign secretary consider you as the forum’s mediator?

Consolidation. I relentlessly reminded my counterparts that we have the responsibility to preserve our unity and keep the ASEAN region peaceful. We can’t build (the region) if conflicts persist. If wars break out, we would be afraid to leave the house, let alone work. So, the sense of regional unity must be nurtured because ASEAN’s stability doesn’t fall from the sky. As the Javanese like to say, stability has to be maintained (diopeni).

How will ASEAN make sure that China complies with the code of conduct in the South China Sea?

That’s not how (we) see things. International principles must be respected under all circumstances. Our job and Indonesia’s priority is to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea region in the interests of many countries and China itself. I don’t think China wants the region to turn into a conflict zone, as the country would itself also be impacted directly.

What are some of the concrete steps?

Our focus now is to manage the region according to the Declaration of Conduct formulated in 2002. The framework was already agreed upon at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in the Philippines two weeks ago. ASEAN and China will take further steps by negotiating the framework’s substance. Claimants such as China, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam must promptly resolve overlapping claims.

What is Indonesia’s stance in the conflict?

Indonesia strictly adheres to the principles of international law. These principles will protect the interests of our nation as an archipelagic state. In the context of the South China Sea, we refer to UNCLOS. Discussions on the issue must be done within UNCLOS’s legal framework. Only with the UNCLOS can Indonesia expand its sea territory without armed conflicts, but rather with negotiations based on these legal principles. So, if any party suggests a discussion outside the UNCLOS’s context, I always say no.

Read the full interview in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine

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