Friday 03 Apr 2020 | 00:51 | SYDNEY
Friday 03 Apr 2020 | 00:51 | SYDNEY

Ali Alatas


Graeme Dobell

15 December 2008 09:17

Former Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, who died on 11 December, liked to talk about ‘modalities’. Used by a skilled diplomat like Alatas, modalities could mean anything or nothing. Or the word could encompass the intricate set of conflicting interests that wove through the Cambodia peace process that Alatas chaired.

The speechwriter laboured to get Alatas to say ‘is’ instead of ‘constitutes’, and to banish ‘inter alia’ from his repertoire. This was a Foreign Minister who could hasten the deliberations of an ASEAN conference by cheerfully threatening to deliver a four hour lecture on Indonesia’s Pancasila doctrince.

While he could obfuscate like any good Foreign Minister, Alatas also had the ability to go straight to the point. Describing East Timor as a ‘pebble in the shoe’ was a succinct expression of the frustration of the longest-serving Indonesian Foreign Minister. Some pebble, some shoe! That pebble tripped any chance that Alatas had of leading the UN.

Alatas showed what Australia and Indonesia could do together. And from an Australian perspective, it’s important to look beyond East Timor to see how Alatas reshaped Indonesian foreign policy.

It’s not over-indulging in the obituary moment to suggest that the Alatas mindset and style are a distinct element in the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the Alatas protégé, the Foreign Minister, Hassan Wirajuda. To illustrate that claim, it helps to look at the big issues Alatas confronted in the early years after he became Foreign Minister in 1988: the creation of APEC, Indonesia’s diplomatic recognition of China, the Cambodia peace process and Indonesia’s push for leadership of the Non Aligned Movement.

Alatas was important in ensuring that APEC was not strangled at birth. The first-ever joint meeting of ASEAN Foreign and Economic Ministers was held in the Malaysian city of Kuching, in February, 1990, three months after the first APEC Ministerial meeting in Canberra. ASEAN diplomats told me at the time that Malaysia went to the meeting arguing that ASEAN should withdraw its support for APEC. One ASEAN diplomat said: 'The Malaysians said we should cut off APEC's head before it starts to grow'.

However, Indonesia was unusually assertive. Alatas faced down Malaysia. The Indonesian Foreign Minister  said ASEAN had gone to the Canberra meeting and pledged its support to the new APEC forum. There was no reason, three months later, to withdraw the endorsement, nor for ASEAN to abandon its earlier position, as expressed by Alatas, that 'the principal ideas and analysis that lay at the base of the Australian proposal are fully accepted'.

A senior Singapore official told me that Alatas' 'slapping down' of the Malaysians had added a new facet to his view of the work Australia was doing with Indonesia to achieve a Cambodian settlement. Alatas had repaid Australia's effort to improve relations with Jakarta. And in reporting back to Suharto, Alatas probably made an even more important point – Malaysia had been put back in its place.

The Cambodia peace process that Alatas co-chaired with France – usually meeting in Jakarta  showed him as a master of diplomatic modalities. He juggled the steely Hun Sen and the mecurial Prince Norodom Sihanouk, kept the ASEAN position relatively coherent and tried to finesse the  immovable and opposing positions of China and Vietnam.

Having France as a co-chair was just an added burden. From the Paris perspective, a solution would be worked out between the UN Permanent Five and imposed on the Cambodian factions. A senior Australian diplomat observed at the time that the French 'were never particularly willing participants' in Jakarta. The French Foreign Minister tended to show up late at the Indonesian talks and leave quickly.

I had one insight into the frustrations caused by the French when talking to a senior Indonesian diplomat in Jakara. He remarked, 'We always know when the Pak Ali is talking about the French...he stops speaking in Bahasa and starts using English or Dutch'. Why the change of language? 'Well, English and Dutch give him more swear words than there are in Bahasa'.

Alatas showed his steel as well as his skill in persuading Suharto to resume the diplomatic relationship with China that had been frozen in the years after the 1965 coup. The re-establishment of relations was launched in Tokyo in February, 1989, when Suharto met China’s Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen. The two had a meeting while attending the funeral of Emperor Hirohito.

The military hierarchy back in Jakarta (particularly General Benny Murdani) was outraged that Alatas had engineered such a major change of policy. Getting offside with the generals was a risky move in the maze of Suharto’s court – especially for a man who had only just become Foreign Minister. But Alatas had judged the moment as accurately as he had assessed Indonesia’s interests. Once Suharto had given his endorsement to the change at the Tokyo meeting, it could not be reversed.

The restoration of diplomatic ties between China and Indonesia was obviously important for bilateral relations. But it was also a vital pre-condition for the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum and the admission of China into APEC. Jakarta’s move removed the self-imposed barrier erected by Singapore, which had always said it would not establish diplomatic relations with Beijing until after Jakarta had acted.

The discussion of the slow growth of the regional architecture in Asia sometimes overlooks how recently some of the basic building blocks were put in place, a point Alatas made with a characteristic wry smile.

A foreign policy warrior to the end, Alatas had helped created the new ASEAN Charter. And importantly for Australia, he contended that the new East Asia Summit should be the supreme body in the regional firmament. Talking up the supremacy of the EAS is at odds with the stance of China and Malaysia, which prefer the EAS as an adjunct of the older ASEAN-plus-three (the 10 ASEAN states plus China, Japan and South Korea).

The Alatas argument linked the need for clean bureaucratic design with a refusal to give China a veto over regional evolution. In saying that the EAS could not be subsumed, Alatas was making the obvious point that India should not be kept on the outer.

Helping Australia wasn’t the key point of the Alatas analysis of the tensions between the ASEAN-plus-three and the EAS. But it still helped Australia’s interests. That is one of the lessons Alatas bequeaths to Canberra.

Australia will always do business with Indonesia. Alatas showed what the two could achieve when Jakarta is clear and systematic in thinking about its foreign policy priorities. Alatas toned down the sense of Javanese calm (or complacent superiority) that could immobilise Indonesian diplomacy. ASEAN and the Non Aligned Movement could still be central to Indonesian policy, but not encompass its entirety.