Government and governance, International relations | Southeast Asia

21 November 2022

A recent debate in Indonesian media about Australia’s sovereignty over Ashmore Reef shows why it’s important for politicians to listen to policy experts, Aristyo Rizka Darmawan writes.

In late October 2022, Indonesian news headlines were plastered with Minister Sandiaga Uno’s controversial claim that Australia’s Ashmore Reef belongs to Indonesia. Uno, who is Indonesia’s Minister of Tourism and the Creative Economy, asserted that Indonesia should protect “every inch” of its territory.

His statement came after the Indigenous people of Timor Sea called for Australia cede control of the reef. Traditional fishing practices have been allowed in the reef since 1974, when Indonesia and Australia signed a bilateral memorandum of understanding (MoU).

However, the peoples of Rote, Alor, Sawu, and Timor islands have demanded that Australia go further and recognise their full sovereignty over the reef, due to their centuries-long fishing and cultural practices in the area. They have even threatened to challenge Canberra on the issue in Australian court.

Soon after Uno’s statement, the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs backtracked, clarifying that the Ashmore Reef does not belong to Indonesia. The Ministry confirmed their recognition that Indonesia’s territory is equivalent to that controlled by its former coloniser – in this case, the former Dutch East Indies territory. The Ashmore Reef was never claimed by the Dutch, but was ceded to Australia in the 1930s by the British.

Moreover, since Indonesia’s independence, the country has never formally claimed ownership over the reef, either internationally or domestically.

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The 1974 MoU was an attempt to clarify the question of Indigenous peoples’ ancestral practices, as it recognised that Timor Sea peoples could continue to use the reef as they always had done, whilst maintaining Australia’s sovereignty over them under international law.

It seems clear that the Indonesian government has no real intention of claiming the Ashmore Reef, nor the legal ability to do so. However, the controversies in Indonesian media over Uno’s demands offer some important lessons for the practice of diplomacy at the intersection of domestic and foreign politics.

First, high ranking Indonesian politicians should be more careful in making controversial statements that go against government policy, especially when it comes to important relationships with neighbouring countries.

The disparity in public statements shows an embarrassing lack of coordination between Minister Uno and the foreign ministry. To remedy this, elected officials and civil servants need to ensure that they are coordinating closely, rather than talking across one another.

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This is even more important when issues of foreign policy collide with domestic nationalist narratives. Nationalism, particularly regarding territorial integrity, is deeply ingrained within Indonesian domestic politics.

This public sensitivity is derived from Indonesia’s recent historical experience with other neighbours. For example, in 2002 the International Court of Justice ruled against Indonesia in its longstanding dispute with Malaysia over ownership of the Sipadan and Ligitan islands.

This ‘loss’ had a deep psychological impact on Indonesian citizens. As such, it may be tempting for politicians to invoke these memories and concerns for electoral gain, particularly on the 20th anniversary of the Sipadan-Ligitan decision.

Certainly, a concern with defending one’s country is not a bad thing, when properly applied. However, by baselessly accusing other countries of impinging on Indonesia’s territorial integrity, leaders risk inflaming public sentiment, which can in turn create pressure to escalate proceedings diplomatically.

Instead of making provocative statements, Indonesian officials should take responsibility for educating the public about the truth. Given the importance of the Australia-Indonesia relationship, it is important that any debate over the ownership of Ashmore Reef in Indonesia be ended on the basis of the 1974 MoU.

Moreover, this should also be a lesson for Indonesian politicians as to the importance of consulting with their departments before speaking to the media.

If they do, they might manage to avoid embarrassment in the future.

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