Indonesia steps up nuclear diplomacy after securing IAEA board seat

With thick geopolitical undertones colouring Indonesia’s nuclear diplomacy, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi has reiterated the country’s position on nuclear weapons non-proliferation and called for global disarmament.

Yvette Tanamal

Yvette Tanamal

The Jakarta Post


The logo of the International Atomic Energy Agency is pictured on a glass door in the agency's building during a Board of Governors meeting at the agency's headquarters in Vienna, Austria, on Sept. 11, 2023. PHOTO: AFP/THE JAKARTA POST

October 2, 2023

JAKARTA – As geopolitical tensions brew in its vicinity, Indonesia has continued to intensify its nuclear diplomacy throughout the week by securing a membership position at the United Nations nuclear watchdog and asserting its nuclear non-proliferation stance at the multilateral organization headquarters.

Indonesia was unanimously elected to represent the Southeast Asia and Pacific region on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors through 2023 to 2025. The country will join other board members including Algeria, Burkina Faso, South Korea, Bangladesh, the Netherlands and Spain.

The new position, which will allow Jakarta to submit recommendations on future IAEA programs and approve nuclear-related safeguard guidelines, came as Indonesia continues to struggle to convince major powers to keep Southeast Asia clear off nuclear weapons.

“[Indonesia] will continue to play an active role in encouraging the development of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes,” said Damos Dumoli Agusman, Indonesia’s representative to the IAEA, in a statement on Thursday.

“[We] will continue to play an active role and support the IAEA’s role in carrying out its mandate regarding the issue of nuclear security, safety and safeguards amid the quite complicated geopolitical and security situation,” he added.

The Board of Governors is one of the two IAEA policy-making bodies that meets five times a year. The next board meeting is scheduled for November, likely to discuss about the categorization of nuclear-powered submarine, said Foreign Ministry multilateral cooperation director general Tri Tharyat on Friday.

Read also: AUKUS pact puts Indonesia in tight spot

The topic of nuclear-powered submarines has piqued Indonesia and surrounding neighbors’ interest in recent years, following the formation of the Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States pact, dubbed as AUKUS, to supply such vessels to Canberra amid growing tensions with China.

“We’re still not sure on how the discussions will go, but Australia, the UK and the US have coordinated with the IAEA,” Tri told reporters.

“There have also been some responses from concerned countries, including from China, about AUKUS. So far, though, there haven’t been any discussions yet.”

Nuclear-powered submarines are not considered weapons, and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has publicly softened Indonesia’s stance on AUKUS. But behind closed doors, officials have expressed concerns that the nuclear component of such ships could be converted into weapons without strict oversight.

Lacking leverage

With thick geopolitical undertones coloring Indonesia’s nuclear diplomacy, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi has reiterated the country’s position on nuclear weapons non-proliferation and called for global disarmament on behalf of ASEAN in a recent UN forum.

“The total elimination of nuclear weapons is the only way to guarantee against their use and threat of use,” Retno asserted at the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons in New York on Tuesday.

“ASEAN calls on countries, especially nuclear weapon states [NWSs] to fully implement their obligations and commitment, including the NPT,” she added, referring to the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty.

Read also: Convincing major powers to abide by ASEAN’s nuclear treaty is challenging

As this year’s ASEAN chair, Jakarta has attempted to soothe the restless region by persuading NWSs to accede to the protocol of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ), a pact seeking to keep the region free from nuclear weapons.

Despite Retno’s firm statements against the region “becoming another battleground,” she has only received half-hearted nods but no promises from the five recognized NWSs: France, the UK, the US, China and Russia.

Experts have previously stated that ASEAN has shown improvements in asserting its stance, yet may still lack the leverage necessary to go beyond discussions.

Indonesia ratified the NPT in 1978, and its follow-up of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Test (CTBT) in 2012. Yet, the country had only signed in 2017 but not ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a treaty that some have considered as necessary in strengthening Indonesia’s position.

Retno has scheduled a meeting with the House of Representatives on Monday, Tri said, to progress the TPNW ratification. Once the treaty comes into force, Tri added, it would be a “persuasive asset” in Indonesia’s nuclear diplomacy.

Tensions in the region recently flared up, with the latest one occurring between the Philippines and China over overlapping claims in the South China Sea. It has become the latest episode in an ongoing regional dispute many have feared will eventually lead to an open conflict.

Read also: ASEAN ‘unprepared’ for open conflict in Indo-Pacific

The Indonesian Foreign Ministry called on Friday for all countries to restrain themselves and refrain from provocative actions, suggesting that dialogue-led solutions must be prioritized.

Amid flare-ups in the region and the widening development gap between rich and poor countries, Retno also called for nuclear energy development for mutually beneficial endeavors, such as agriculture, health and industry, rather than as weapons of mass destruction.

“This way, humanity’s doomsday clock will never have to reach midnight.”

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