21st Century Challenges to Democracy Part VI: Lessons and Conclusions for Indonesia re China

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(Agung Wahyudi/IO)

In looking at problems confronting 21st century democracy and possible solutions, the Independent Observer has spoken with a number of international figures. In Part VI, we speak to Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister, Shyam Saran, former Indian Foreign Secretary, Marzuki Darusman former Head of Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission, Bambang Harymurti, former editor–in-chief of Indonesia’s foremost political journal Tempo and former Australian diplomat and political observer Kevin Evans.

IO – With the most land mass, the largest population and the highest nominal GDP in ASEAN Indonesia is not only the largest democracy in Southeast Asia but also the most democratic of the ASEAN nations. In assessing democracy in ASEAN former Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans describes Indonesia’s position on democracy in Southeast Asia, “as a beacon of democratic hope”.

In the 1990s several Asian leaders including Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad and Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew actively advocated a political ideology for Southeast Asia and East Asia known as Asian Values which was a thinly veiled defence for suppressing freedom of speech and human rights. However, in 1998 when the people of Jakarta poured into the streets of the nation’s capital demanding democracy the New Order regime of former President Soeharto collapsed, Indonesia became a democracy and there was no more talk of Asian Values. After Reformasi Indonesia became the leader for democracy in ASEAN and in 2008 under the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono the Bali Democracy Forum was created with the aim of promoting democracy, human rights, equality, and mutual respect in the Asia Pacific area. India which for so long found itself the only democracy in the region discovered that it had a new ally in democracy.

Former Indian foreign secretary, Shyam Saran explains that democracy has perhaps taken root more quickly in India and Indonesia than in other countries because many of the values of both countries are in line with the democratic system. It is why he is optimistic about the survival of democracy in Indonesia and India. He says, “This is why we should not look at the survival of democracy as being linked to the United States or Europe. It is in line with our traditions and cultures and that is why it will survive. It depends upon our own choices.

India is so diverse that it would be difficult to give it an authoritarian monochrome frame. It’s most important factor of resilience is its diversity of subcultures and religions. Should India move towards an authoritarian system there would be an immediate reaction. So, India will remain a democratic society because that is the natural system for India that works in order for it to remain one country.

In India there is also an acceptance that truth comes out of proposition and counter proposition. Being argumentative is part of Indian tradition. Dissent is an integral part of the Indian philosophical tradition for we look upon spiritual and intellectual exploration as a deeply personal experience. It is not linked to the community but rather the strength of the individual. The great sages of India were people who left society and went into the jungle as for example, Gautama Buddha who then came up with his own ideas about what life is about. In Buddhism the teacher cannot provide enlightenment. He can show you the direction and the path but you have to make the journey yourself. Hinduism is the same: you have duties to society but spiritual and intellectual advancement is personal. Sufism is also like that and much of Indonesian Islam was based on Sufism. So, in India society must respect the rights of the individual and not try to oppress him which is a very democratic principle.”

He contends that Indonesia’s strength is a long and historical cultural tradition that is known as musyawarah untuk mufakat or “deliberation to reach consensus” which is embodied in the fourth principle of Indonesia’s Pancasila or Five Principles of State. It basically views discussion as a consultative process with the grassroots where the government does not try to simply impose but rather tries to bring about things through consensus and this is how democracy should work. Although Indonesian respect for diversity of religion is currently under strain innately Indonesia is remarkably tolerant and inclusive and can accommodate many different ways of thinking.

Over hundreds of years it has developed rich cultures which are anchors for society. The stronger and richer the cultures the more stable the society because these provide a sense of belonging and even when changes take place respect for these cultural traditions give a certain stability to society.

He explains that the United States has the legacy of European culture and over the last 200 years has adjusted this to their own environment. They began with an Anglo-Saxon culture but then had an influx of immigrants from other European countries such as Germany, Spanish speaking countries and Italy. Now there are immigrants from all over the world in the United States and this is America’s strength. Coming to terms with having to set aside their original Anglo-Saxon identity and culture for a more global culture is their current problem. In Indonesia there have been influences from all over the world for centuries as Indonesia has always been on the major international trade routes.

Like most democracies Indonesia is now facing China an authoritarian state whose economy is predicted to overtake that of the United States by 2028 and to double by 2035. China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea and its land borders are a part of its policy to assert itself as a pre-eminent power in Asia. China is aggressively promoting its economic model amongst African, South American and Asian under-developed countries with success. Its anti-democratic stance asserts that its authoritarian politics with an open economy is the best model for economic progress.

For Indonesia China’s increasingly stronger anti-democracy position is proving to be a challenge especially as it has strong economic ties with China which is Indonesia’s largest trading partner and its third largest investor. India’s Deccan Herald asserts that as part of it foreign policy China appears to also be attempting to persuade the Chinese diaspora that ethnic loyalty is more important than national loyalty. For Indonesia with a small but economically extremely significant Chinese population this is another potential worry. Meanwhile, China’s foreign policy has changed from what was previously a defensive foreign policy to an expansive one in the course of which it has claimed nearly 90% of the South China Sea, several islands and reefs including the waters surrounding them. It refers to them as an area of “core interest”, a term it has used to describe Xinjiang, Taiwan and Tibet. China’s claims are based on a combination of the status of waters belonging to an archipelagic state and its historic legacy. Both contravene the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which Indonesia and China are signatories. Its claims were also invalidated by the Hague International Tribunal in 2016.


While Indonesia is like most ASEAN nations unhappy with China’s claim only a small area of its EEZ in the Natuna Sea overlap with China’s nine-dash line. Nevertheless, Indonesia has repeatedly clashed with China over violations of sovereignty and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in Indonesian waters, in the process detaining Chinese fishermen and expanding its military presence in the area. Last December Indonesia discovered China’s Coast Guard escorting Chinese fishermen in Indonesia’s Natuna EEZ. About 50 Chinese vessels illegally entered Indonesian Natuna waters and are suspected of having engaged in illegal fishing.

While Indonesia clearly has neither China’s military nor economic might the Indonesian government has made it clear to China that “it will never recognize China’s nine-dash line because it is contrary to UNCLOS in accordance with the 2016 tribunal ruling”. The Indonesian government has increased its military presence on Natuna Besar, the largest island in Natuna. According to a report in the South China Morning Post the Indonesian military has also begun arming its maritime force with 30 mm remote-controlled Stabilized Naval Gun Systems to deter illegal fishing in its Natuna waters.

Other nations in surrounding regions have tried to create counter balances to China’s aggressive territorial tactics. One of these initiatives was the formation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quod), an informal strategic forum which held its first formal meeting in 2007 between the United States, Australia, India and Japan. In 2020 Australia for the first time joined the rest of the Quad in the Malabar naval exercises. The Quod acknowledges the importance of ASEAN’s role in Southeast Asian affairs and it is generally looked upon favourably among ASEAN leaders. Indonesia has an independent and active foreign policy principle which tends to prevent it from joining military alliances, making it unlikely that Indonesia would ever become a member of the Quad. It does not even attend Quad summits as a third party.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that Indonesia’s Minister of Defense, Prabowo Subianto met the Australian Defense Minister in Bali on the 6th of December 2019. This was followed by a visit to China’s Defense Minister on the 15th of December 2019. In July of 2020 he met with the Indian Defense Minister and on the15th of October 2020 he travelled to the United States to meet with the American Minister of Defense and yesterday (30th of March 2021) Defense Minister Prabowo met with the Japanese Minister of Defense as well as the Japanese Foreign Minister in Tokyo in a two-plus-two meeting which included Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. At the meeting Indonesia and Japan signed a defence agreement on the transfer of Japanese-made defence equipment and technology. Indonesia’s Minister of Defense met with the Chinese Defense Minister but he has also met with the ministers of defense of all the members of the Quod. Clearly, the Minister is strengthening Indonesia’s strategic diversity. Indonesia needs to tread delicately in trying to balance its economic and democratic interests in the region. In its democracy leadership role in ASEAN Indonesia prefers to play a very low key role consistent with the Javanese notion of leadership from behind rather than from in front. One of the ASEAN states whose democratization process Indonesia has tried to support in the past is that of Myanmar. This Indonesia has done bilaterally, through ASEAN as well as via United Nations forums. For this reason, the recent military coup in Myanmar and the nearly 500 Burmese protestors killed by its military in recent weeks has been of grave concern to Indonesia. Added to this both Russia and China back Myanmar’s military. It has left Indonesia in a difficult position. Gareth Evans contends, “Naming, shaming, sanctions and isolation are the only levers available and they should all be employed by any state valuing the principles of the Universal Declaration and UN Human Rights Covenants. However, Myanmar’s generals have shrugged all of them off in the past, and may well again, particularly if they believe China has their back. The most useful pressure would be a united ASEAN response, but that is a forlorn hope.”

Marzuki Darusman believes that there is no need to demonize China. He believes that the United States, ASEAN and China need to be able to rebalance the region or contain China. He says, “We need to remember that under the Suharto regime Japanese capital was at its expansion peak and then we had a lesser waive of incoming capital from South Korea and now we have Chinese capital flowing in; all in the interests of economic development. So, it’s a natural inevitability of economic development and there is nothing sinister about it and we should not see it as predominantly Chinese. Nevertheless, we need to build up our capabilities and be able to hold our ground and uphold certain rules and principles that would gain acknowledgement. We need to clear up our act on governance, corruption and the rule of law but that can only be done if we collaborate with countries with whom we have trade. This would build up our strength in the eyes of other countries. In protecting and promoting democracy Indonesia needs to play a part in building a world order based on democracy and justice. I call this a constitutional foreign policy. This is expressed in the preamble to the Indonesian Constitution apart from the free and active foreign policy. At present however, we only have a free and active foreign policy.”

Former editor of Tempo, Bambang Harymurti tends to agree, “President Joko Widodo does not care too much about foreign affairs. He is too focused on domestic issues so Indonesia has not shown much leadership in foreign affairs. In the case of Myanmar, it was only Indonesia’s foreign minister who criticized the military junta. The President has not commented on Myanmar. His only interest in foreign affairs is where it concerns trade and investment.”

The main difference between democratic and non-democratic nations lies in their interpretation of what defines human rights. For non-democratic nations such as China and Russia which during the Cold War were known as the Eastern Block social and economic rights are true human rights whereas for democratic nations such as America and Europe which during the Cold War were known as the Western Block human rights are foremost civil and political rights. Of course, things have not remained absolute and many Western European countries have developed semi-socialist systems including free education and health care, pensions and social security whereas China is a communist country with a market economy. At present the Chinese government’s only legitimacy derives from delivering economically. Like the Soeharto government, China’s government may fall if it one day cannot deliver economically. Also people evolve. Once a nation has acquired a prosperous economy and its people have obtained an affluent level of life style they tend to demand civil and political rights. Perhaps, the world is going through a slow transition to a situation where ultimately all nations will provide social and economic rights as well as civil and political rights.

Political observer and former Australian diplomat, Kevin Evans comments, “What is remarkable is that Indonesia’s Constituent Assembly of December 1955 was elected to develop a final permanent Constitution for Indonesia and included 35 articles dealing with human rights which was remarkable in that they included a wide range of social and economic as well as civil and political rights. It therefore, contained what both Eastern and Western blocks at that time considered human rights and these were unanimously accepted as part of the constitution by all factions in the legislative body (the nationalists, socialists, communists and religious parties). That year however, President Sukarno disbanded parliament and returned to the Constitution of 1945.

The Indonesian Constitution of 1955 was extremely specific in the human rights that it specified including such things as the right to refuse the police entry if they did not carry a warrant as well as protection for local languages. In 1999 Indonesia began again to include elements of the principles of human rights from both the Eastern and Western Blocks in its constitution.”

So, Indonesia is in the right place although we will no doubt face many challenges and problems in the times to come – as all nations do but Indonesia should remain confident while navigating its course carefully. We are on the right track and are in fact further ahead than many countries as we try to provide our people with both economic and political human rights.

As regards Myanmar and China perhaps Indonesia needs to remember that democracy did not come easily to Indonesia either. We did not have democracy for nearly 40 years under President Sukarno and then President Suharto. During the 30 years that Indonesia built up its economy under President Suharto we did so without true democracy. India and Indonesia are fortunate that democracy is in line with their cultural values. Other nations may take longer to evolve democratically. In the meantime, Indonesia would do well to strengthen its ties and increase its relations with other democratic nations such as India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, the United States and the European Union. Whereas at home Indonesia must continue to focus on democracy and the economy. Joe Biden perhaps expressed it best when he told reporters at his first news conference as president, “This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies. We’ve got to prove democracy works.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

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Part I of this series discusses the changing demographics, racism, the economy and education and their challenge to 21st century democracy.  Please see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-i-the-role-of-changing-demographics-racism-the-economy-and-education/

Part II of this series discusses the internet, fake news and extremism and their challenge to 21st century democracy. Please see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-ii-the-role-of-the-internet-fake-news-and-extremism/

Part III of this series discusses the role of political structures and systems in preventing polarization and extremism, Please see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-iii-the-role-of-political-structures-and-systems-in-preventing-polarization-and-extremism/

Part IV of this series discusses the roles of China and Russia and their challenges to 21st century democracy. Please see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-iv-the-influence-of-non-democratic-states/

Part V of this series discusses Lessons and Conclusions for Indonesia. Please see: https://observerid.com/21st-century-challenges-to-democracy-part-v-lessons-and-conclusions-for-indonesia/