FILE - Secretary of State​ Rex Tillerson shakes hands with
FILE - Secretary of State​ Rex Tillerson shakes hands with

JAKARTA - Indonesia has created a dedicated foreign aid agency for the first time, underscoring its recent push to play a bigger role in global affairs.

In her annual foreign policy statement last week, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi announced the creation of "Indonesia Aid," a "single agency [that] will strengthen Indonesia's diplomacy including humanitarian diplomacy." Its starting budget is 1 trillion rupiah, or about $70 million.

Marsudi also made a splash last month when she responded to the move of the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; the very next day after President Donald Trump's announcement, she showed up to a speaking engagement wearing a Palestinian scarf in solidarity with the territory. President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo echoed her with an unusually strong statement condemning Israel.

Wearing a Palestinian scarf, Indonesian Foreign Mi
Wearing a Palestinian scarf, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, center, talks to the media during Bali Democracy Forum held in Tangerang on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Marsudi condemned the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in her speech at the opening of the forum.

Indonesia was also one of the few countries to criticize Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya Muslims last year and has recently offered to partner with the Philippines, which has been battling Islamist militancy, for counterterrorism. These gestures, combined with the new foreign aid agency and a planned bid for a U.N. Security Council seat next year, point to what many are calling a renaissance for Indonesia's role in geopolitics.

Historical footprint

Indonesia remains a net recipient of foreign aid, but the new agency could be a step in the other direction.

"We will provide an elementary briefing on the foreign aid priorities this month," said Arrmanatha Nasir, spokesperson of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Early in his presidency, President Jokowi seemed to shift his foreign policy priorities from regional to global. In 2014, when he was elected, one of Jokowi's top policy advisors said, "We used to say ASEAN [The Association of Southeast Asian Nations] is the cornerstone of our foreign policy. Now we change it to a cornerstone of our foreign policy."

That is, Indonesia sought to expand from a regional leader to a global one. It's not unfeasible, given that Indonesia is the fourth-largest nation in the world by population and its GDP has increased steadily — albeit with huge inequality — since its transition to electoral democracy in 1998.

Marsudi specifically mentioned "Africa, South and Central Asia, as well as Latin America," as targets for economic diplomacy this year.

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Moghe
FILE - European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini, left, and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi talk during a meeting on the sidelines of the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting and Related Meetings in Manila, Philippines, Monday, Aug. 7, 2017.

Although Indonesia has been somewhat reticent on the global stage under previous presidential administrations, like that of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, it does have a track record of international leadership. Indonesia spearheaded the midcentury Non-Aligned Movement of developing nations that refused to take sides with the U.S. or Soviet Union in the Cold War.

The 1955 Bandung Conference, organized by Indonesia's founding president Sukarno, clinched the nascent movement, and was attended by the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Nehru, and Gamel Abdul Nasser. The NAM has continued to this day, now with 120 member states — and its headquarters remain in Jakarta.

Global Muslim populism

It is still significant that the most vocal recipients of Indonesian solidarity have been Muslim nations and peoples. Indonesia is, as is frequently observed, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, and many of its citizens feel a strong emotional connection with  Muslim groups like the Rohingya and Palestinians.

The national stance on the Rohingya, for instance, can be seen as a shrewd populist move, since the issue has inflamed Islamist groups in Indonesia.

The government statements "could be considered fairly tame and very much shaped by domestic political struggles, in particularly the political potency of religious populism, rather than any concerted strategy to assert itself internationally," said Ian Wilson, a researcher at Murdoch University.

Rohingya Muslim refugees wait for food aid at Than
Rohingya Muslim refugees wait for food aid at Thankhali refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia district.

"In the case of the Rohingya crisis, official condemnations regarding the atrocities carried out by the Burmese military, including the sending of a diplomatic delegation to Myanmar, were done after mass protests in Indonesia, including an attempt to burn down the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta," he added. "There is a genuine concern in Indonesia regarding the fate of the Rohingya, but the issue has also been callously exploited by political opportunists, such as the Islamist groups and their elite backers, to attack Jokowi as weak and 'anti-Islam'… in the lead up to regional and presidential elections in 2018 and 2019."

On the flip side, Indonesia may finally be in position to capitalize on its unique and tolerant Muslim traditions abroad. Indonesia has famously been the recipient of huge investments and cultural influence from Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, which is linked to rising fundamentalism, but has had little success exporting its "Islam Nusantara" ("Islam of the archipelago") abroad.

Marsudi recently pledged to give scholarships for Muslim students in the Philippines to study in Indonesia — which is a major outlet of Gulf investment. So Indonesia may yet expand not just its aid-based and economic diplomacy, but its religious diplomacy as well.