The relationship between Australia and Indonesia's Foreign Ministers has progressed to 'text buddies', according to Julie Bishop's assessment of the thawing relations between the two countries. Bishop held 'warm and constructive' talks with her Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, over breakfast in Sydney last Thursday and says the relationship is now 'in good shape'. So what else do we know about Indonesia's Foreign Minister?
Retno took on her new role last year as part of President Jokowi's 'Working Cabinet'. She replaced Marty Natalegawa, who despite having many a dry retort for Australian opinions he didn't like, was said to be on friendly texting terms with our Foreign Minister. Bishop's remark about becoming 'text buddies' with Retno is surely meant to signal that relations have returned to the positive levels achieved with Marty.
Like Bishop, Retno is her country's first female foreign minister. She was introduced to the public as one of the eight 'heroines' populating Jokowi's cabinet, many of whom were taking on roles outside of what are generally considered 'women's fields' in Indonesia. Also like Bishop, Retno does not publicly identify as a feminist, though she does credit a gender mainstreaming program at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry for helping her progress through her career. Her own comments in interviews suggest a conservative approach to gender roles, saying that it's difficult for a woman with a family to hold a high position of power, but that she considers certain diplomatic qualities to come naturally to a woman, such as 'loyalty, empathy, prudence and meticulousness'.
Her approach to foreign policy represents a shift from Yudhoyono's 'one thousand friends and zero enemies' to a more Jokowi-style 'pro-people' diplomacy. She has suggested that such a down-to-earth diplomatic style could involve Indonesian ambassadors following Jokowi's example of performing blusukan, by making impromptu visits to local neighbourhoods and marketplaces. The purpose of these visits, she has suggested, could be to look for potential opportunities abroad for Indonesian businesses. It's easy to imagine that Retno saw herself setting this kind of example when she was ambassador to the Netherlands. She would tell the media about her habit of enquiring at local shops as to whether any Indonesian products were available, and if not, whether the shopkeepers could order some in.
However, this small-scale approach to diplomacy does not do much to balance Jokowi's own limited understanding of international affairs.
As a furniture businessman who excelled in local politics before becoming president, Jokowi needs a foreign minister who will bring his attention to big picture international matters. Instead, Retno has so far taken on the role in the manner of a career diplomat, by getting on with the job but without bringing any great vision to the position.
Her handling of the executions this year is one example. She is a graduate of human rights studies at Oslo University and a former member of a fact-finding team investigating the death of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib. She could therefore have brought some much-needed nuanced insight to the issue of capital punishment for drug offenders in Indonesia. Instead, she chose only to repeat the government line of no compromise.
Retno has spent her career to date in a series of diplomatic roles, mostly involving Europe and the US. Aside from an entry-level government job related to the activities of ASEAN, she has had very little experience with diplomacy in Asia. In the early 1990s, she was stationed at the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra at the time of the Santa Cruz massacre by Indonesian troops in Timor-Leste. She was put under a 24-hour police guard after her car was vandalised and she made the decision to pull her children out of school for a week. She remembers her time in Australia as a difficult point in her career.
Nonetheless, Retno considers Bishop to be one of her closest counterparts, and says the two keep in contact outside the glare of the media spotlight. When news emerged of Australia paying boats to turn back to Indonesian waters, she personally sought an explanation from Bishop. Retno denies that Indonesia's foreign policy has become too introspective under her leadership, saying she has held bilateral meetings with scores of world leaders since Jokowi was inaugurated in October last year.
With Retno and Bishop now on close texting terms, perhaps we can again raise hopes for a relationship focused more on regional issues than domestic concerns from both sides.
Photo courtesy of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.