Natalegawa: Indonesia Wants to 'Facilitate Conversation' on Tense South China Sea

Indonesia Foreign Minister gives wide-ranging talk at Asia Society New York

NEW YORK, September 19, 2013 — Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr. Marty Natalegawa said Thursday he believes the countries of ASEAN, and Indonesia in particular, will be critical in ensuring peace in the tense South China Sea.

"Perhaps ASEAN, as the least objectionable party to East Asia, can be the initiator for a … groundbreaking, perception-changing, paradigm-shifting outlook in the rest of East Asia," Natalegawa said during a packed luncheon at Asia Society in New York.

The wide-ranging talk, which covered everything from corruption to poverty to terrorism to Indonesia's upcoming presidential election, was moderated by Asia Society Executive Vice President Tom Nagorski, and was held with the cooperation of the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce. Video from the complete event is embedded at the top of this story.

Natalegawa said Indonesia had started a regional conversation that he hopes could lead to something akin to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia that would lead all countries in Southeast and East Asia toward peaceful resolutions to ongoing territorial disputes.

"None of us should underestimate the complexity of the issues relating to the South China Sea," said Natalegawa, in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. "It is always complex, it is always difficult whenever you have issues of territorial disputes … whether it be land or maritime, especially even more complex when there are several parties involved."

Natalegawa called for "patience," and said Indonesia would like to take a leadership role in the region.

"Indonesia is not a claimant state and therefore it has the capacity to try to facilitate some kind of a conversation, but we'll take it one step at a time," he said.

The discussion also covered the United States' "pivot" to Asia, which Natalegawa believes may be getting misinterpreted.

"I have never felt that the United States has been away from the Asia-Pacific, so I don't think we should attach too much drama (to it)," he said. "What I find somewhat unfortunate, the focus on the pivot, is that it makes the U.S. engagement in the region unnecessarily appear to be unidimensional, as if it is only a military presence, when in fact your strength actually lies in the broad spectrum of what the United States actually represents."

Natalegawa also fielded a question from the event's web audience, which asked whether Indonesia could be seen as a democratic model for other Muslim-majority countries like Egypt and Tunisia. Natalegawa acknowledged that several governments in North Africa and the Middle East had reached out to Indonesia seeking advice.

"Indonesia is now having the burden … to prove that Islam, democracy and development or modernity can go hand in hand," he said. "We are quite modest in not wanting to extrapolate or project our own national experience elsewhere. There is no one-size-fits-all. But at the same time lessons can be learned, in terms of failings especially."

He continued, "We recognize democratization is a process, not an event. There will be ebb and flow, and Indonesia went through it, is going through it still. Hopefully the people of these countries have the resilience and the patience in persevering with the democratic experience."

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