February 22, 2022
JAKARTA – The Indonesian proverb “Lepas dari mulut harimau masuk mulut buaya” (literally out of a tiger’s mouth into a crocodile’s mouth) or its English equivalent “Out of the frying pan into the fire” can help to understand the difficult situation facing Ukrainians today.
They are under threat of invasion from Russian President Vladimir Putin despite his repeated denials.
The United States-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has vowed to protect them, but the Western alliance is equally untrustworthy.
The proverb can also describe Indonesia’s challenge in sticking to its free and active foreign policy doctrine amid the rivalry between the US and Russia, as well as the steadily rising China.
US President Joe Biden has an overwhelming desire to restore US military and economic supremacy in the world.
Unlike his predecessor Donald Trump who directly confronted China through unilateral tactics, Biden prefers a multilateral approach.
The end purpose is just the same; both intentionally divide the world into friends and foes, emulating former president George W. Bush’s mantra “You are with us or against us.”
In his telephone conversation late last month with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Biden boasted he would defend the country’s sovereignty as soon as “[Russian] tanks or troops cross the border”.
The 44-year-old Ukrainian president, however, tried to keep a distance from Biden, apparently because he did not want to provoke Putin’s anger, but also probably because he remembered how Trump used military aid to press Zelensky to say “bad things” about Biden’s son Hunter before the 2020 elections. “I’m the president of Ukraine, I’m based here, and I think I know the details deeper than any other president,” said Zelensky, who is a former comedian, actor and director.
Though I am not a scholar who has deep knowledge about global politics, it is not difficult to predict Ukraine will have to face powerful Russia alone.
Outsiders will only “fish in the murky waters”.
Ukrainians have reason to regret their leaders’ decision to give up all the 3,000 nuclear weapons they inherited from the former Soviet Union when their country declared independence on Aug. 21, 1991, or four months before the official dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Had Ukraine kept its nuclear arsenal, it could have used it as a deterrent against Russia.
In 1994, Ukraine handed over its nuclear weapons to Russia, after the US, United Kingdom, Russia and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum.
The three UN Security Council members guaranteed the territorial sovereignty of the newly born nation.
What lesson can be learned from the Budapest Memorandum?
Never depend on the assurance of powerful countries, no matter how binding the written or verbal promises are.
Ukraine at that time had little choice as a new republic. Indonesia shared such an experience.
In 1975, then US President Gerald Ford approved then Indonesian president Soeharto’s plan to invade East Timor. Australia’s prime minister Gough Whitlam also gave his nod to Indonesia’s move, because the West was afraid the communists would seize control of the former colony of Portugal.
Soeharto maintained his hard approach in East Timor, defying mounting aspirations for independence there.
Soeharto’s fall in 1998 only accelerated East Timor’s path to independence.
In 2002, East Timor became an independent state under a new name Timor Leste.
In facing China, Biden opts for multilateralism by involving key allies in the Asia Pacific.
It becomes more challenging for Indonesia to uphold its “free and active” foreign policy.
There are temptations to be more flexible given that China is growing more assertive.
In September last year, Biden hosted the first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) summit at the White House.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, outgoing Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga, and Australia’s Scott Morrison attended.
The main objective of the loose security pact is to contain China, as not one of them dares to fight China head-on.
In their joint statement, the leaders flattered the 10-member Asean as the center of the Indo-Pacific cooperation zone, although their concept and vision are very different from Asean’s vision.
Indonesia made it very clear that it does not want to take a side in the increasing conflicts between China and the US and its allies.
Washington, Tokyo and Canberra aggressively approached President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to get closer to their club. Look at the joint statement issued after their summit, which clearly was targeting China. “We will continue to champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS], to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas”.
Still not satisfied with the Quad, in September last year, Biden established a new security pact with Australia and the UK (AUKUS). And he awarded nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.
Again, the target is very clear: They want to corner China. Both the Quad and AUKUS consider themselves the supreme security safeguards of the Indo-Pacific region and have unilaterally concluded that Asean and other nations will be at their side against China.
They even invited European Union members to boost their presence in this region.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian condemned AUKUS and said it “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race”.
I do not know what will happen to Ukraine in the near future. But Indonesia needs to learn from what is going on there now. The Biden administration will continue pushing President Jokowi to tilt to Washington, at the cost of his close ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping.