Beyond the Myth of Bebas-Aktif, An Argument for Indonesia Partiality in Conflicts

The recent Russo-Ukrainian conflict that broke out after the latter’s invasion of the former’s territory in 2022 sparked a controversy among Indonesians about the foundation of their country’s foreign policy and its relevance to today’s world.

Radityo Dharmaputra, lecturer in Universitas Airlangga, criticizes Indonesia’s half-hearted attitude toward the ongoing conflict in Ukraine where the foreign ministry was only committed to vote in favour of condemning the Russian invasion and annexation of the other party. He argued that Indonesia’s principle of “bebas-aktif” or “independent and active” in formulating and enacting foreign policy directives has contributed to the ambiguity of the government’s position on the issue of the Ukrainian conflict.

Should Indonesia be Neutral?

               “Bebas-aktif” policy is rooted on Mohammad Hatta’s “Paddling Between Two Rocks” speech in 1948, where the he emphasized the need for Indonesia to steer clear between the US-led Western bloc and the USSR-led communist bloc in the emerging Cold War.

Hatta argued that Indonesia should be free to act in accordance to its national interest and raison d’etre as inscribed on the Constitution, which is the strengthening of peace and international solidarity. A set of goals which could not be achieved if Indonesia, on the contrary, takes part in one of the Cold War blocs as yet another belligerent party.

               If understood at a glance, the “independent and active” policy could be misinterpreted as the need to be apathic towards the global situation, especially towards conflicts. Hatta himself, had foreseen this problem by stating that Indonesia cannot be neutral in conflicts under the pretext of “independent and active policy.”

The stance of “bebas-aktif” is intrinsically reinforced by Indonesia’s membership in the UN, in which as a member state, Indonesia must comply with Articles 41 and 43 of the U.N. Charter which state the obligation of members to “…contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security…” in other words, Indonesia should oppose any parties that violates world peace by merit of their actions.

               Such misinterpretation of “independent and active” policy could lead to ambivalence in reacting to a clear violation of international law and peace by any party. This mindset of ambivalence is reflected on the Indonesian intelligentsia during the start of Russo-Ukrainian conflict in 2022, in which Universitas Hasanuddin lecturer Patrice Lumumba and military analyst Connie Rahakundini Bakrie criticized Indonesia’s support for the UN General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Among the rank of academicians, Universitas Indonesia Professor in International Law Hikmahanto Juwana deplored the same vote for not considering the impact on Indonesia-Russia relation, in which the latter could perceive former’s stance as orbiting the United States.

               Those comments were made by primarily considering world peace in the context of great power politics between the United States and Russia, not forgetting their respective allies like the People’s Republic of China. As seen before, Hikmahanto did not even emphasize Ukraine’s concern for safeguarding its sovereignty, he went straight to the issue of Russia’s attitude towards Indonesian response in the UN.

 Similar attitude was also shown by Professor of International Relation in Universitas Indonesia Evi Fitriani, who said that Russia’s invasion could also be attributed to unspecified decisions by the Ukrainian government. She blamed the Government of Ukraine, and the West for providing a reason for Russia to invade. Again, Ukraine’s status as being the main victim of the war does not give it the privilege of being treated as the main actor as well.

Unlike the obvious contradiction of having a neutral stance to the “independent and active” policy, the matter of world peace as a goal of said policy is a far more complex issue to deliberate. One that will be greatly assisted by paying attention to the result of Afro-Asian Conference also known as Bandung Conference in 1955. A phenomenal event in the history of international relations that embodies the “independent and active” policy.

Remembering Bandung Conference

The “Dasasila Bandung” or “Ten Principles of Bandung” that came from Bandung Conference provides a clear elaboration on the “independent and active” policy and how it should guide Indonesia’s, along with other newly independent states in acting on world stage. It is to these principles that Indonesia should wisely consider the soundness of its stance and decision regarding to ongoing conflicts, particularly to the current Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

Of the ten principles agreed at Bandung Conference, two of them directly correlated with the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty during ongoing Russian aggression, which started in fact by the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Those principles are “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations” and “respect for the right of each nation to defend itself singly or collectively, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations.”

This set of principles emanates from the genuine concerns of Bandung Conference for securing and protecting the political independence of nations. One that should be satisfied by the uncritical acceptance of state sovereignty. It was a normative commitment to be in support of a state’s sovereignty as part of a wider project of international solidarity, which aimed to erase colonialism and imperialism then and now.

With this clarity of “independent and active” policy as developed in the “Ten Principles of Bandung,” Indonesia should foremost view Ukraine as a brother in the struggle for state sovereignty against their transgressor’s colonialist and imperialist project. Then, if partiality is at question, Indonesia must show its solidarity with Ukraine. In addition, Ukraine’s claim to its contested territory has its basis in international law which Hatta esteemed in his elaboration of “independent and active” policy.

It is clear that neutrality goes against Indonesia “independent and active” policy; on the contrary, it mandates Indonesia to independently play an active role in world stage, particularly in strengthening world peace and international solidarity. However, it does not prioritize world peace above the struggle of a state for its sovereignty based on international law. It is imperative for Indonesia to show its partiality on that issue, which is to Ukraine in our case. Finally, Indonesia’s consistence or inconsistence in upholding the “Ten Principles of Bandung” as a guide for its “independent and active” policy that is based on international solidarity among states which is struggling will set a precedence. A precedence for Indonesia itself and other countries’ perceptions of Indonesia’s foreign policy. It is very important for Indonesia to be partial when it comes to the defence of any state’s sovereignty, especially in this time of conflict.