By Adelle Neary
Much has been made of new Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s inexperience in international affairs. As a local and then provincial leader, domestic issues constituted the entirety of his policy concerns, and in turn the backbone of his resume and the bulk of his election platform. Stepping onto the world stage for a series of high profile global meetings in November, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, East Asia Summit, and Group of 20 leaders’ meetings, presents him with a somewhat daunting and certainly unfamiliar challenge.
But what does it mean that Indonesia’s new head of state is a relative newcomer to international relations? He certainly won’t be the first world leader to grow into his foreign policy responsibilities. Past Indonesian presidents came to the job with varying degrees of international experience, yet aside from Jokowi’s predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, they seldom possessed extensive international experience. Indonesia does, however, tend to adhere to an established set of principles as a foreign policy actor. While these principles occasionally produce frustrating outcomes or even apparent inaction, they make Indonesia a generally predictable player in world affairs.
Since Indonesia gained its independence in 1945, it has pursued a foreign policy that its founding fathers christened “independent and active” and that, according to then-vice president Mohammad Hatta, was executed “in consonance with the situations and facts it has to face.” Under the stewardship of President Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, “independent and active” has been complemented by “dynamic equilibrium,” “all directions foreign policy,” and “a thousand friends, no enemies.”
Some argue Indonesia has lately tied itself into unproductive knots because the doctrine of policy independence—on which all the above formulations are essentially variations—has lost its meaning. The flexibility is gone and independence in foreign policy has become “synonymous with non-alignment”. Rizal Sukma, one of Jokowi’s foreign policy advisers, has advocated a break with some elements of the Yudhoyono-era foreign policy, with a closer eye to Indonesia’s national interest and particularly its economic interest.
So while there has been no indication that Jokowi will diverge from Indonesia’s overarching approach to international affairs, some of his advisors seem to think Indonesia could afford to be bolder and even more partisan on foreign policy, without undermining the underlying, and ultimately very flexible, doctrine. Natalegawa’s predecessor, Hassan Wirajuda, extolled an interpretation of “independent and active” that allowed Indonesia to make “independent decisions in its own national interest.” This might be the subtle reinterpretation of the existing paradigm that Jokowi’s advisers are looking for.
In his inauguration speech Jokowi restated his view of Indonesia as a “global maritime nexus” driven by a combination of national security and domestic economic concerns. It is an interesting turn of phrase, though one that accurately describes Indonesia’s archipelagic geography and strategic position between the Indian and Pacific oceans and some of the world’s busiest shipping routes run through Indonesia’s straits.
As the unofficial leader of ASEAN and a non-claimant in the South China Sea territorial disputes, a bolder Indonesia could play a constructive mediating role—one that would certainly be welcomed by the United States. Indeed Jokowi has said more than once that he sees Indonesia as a potential “honest broker” in regional disputes.
Consider an example where Indonesia’s navy, for which Jokowi plans to increase funding, begins to unilaterally patrol its exclusive economic zone more aggressively against illegal fishing. This would be consistent with Indonesia’s national interest and food security goals while allowing it to be both “independent” and “active.” A more forward-leaning regional maritime role for Indonesia could be consistent with its historical foreign policy while reinforcing its broader interests within ASEAN and the region.
This doesn’t mean that Indonesia is likely to make a point of standing up to China. Indonesia’s navy is not yet in a position to seriously step-up outward looking patrols, and its foreign ministry would need both clear instructions and commensurate bolstering of resources to switch to this higher gear. And given the overall skittishness in the region, any increased maritime assertiveness, no matter where it is projected, would ideally be accompanied by diplomatic outreach led by the foreign ministry and aimed at reinforcing rules-based regional behavior.
Jokowi’s inexperience certainly throws an element of the unknown into Indonesian foreign policy and the plethora of domestic issues he is facing will be an undoubted distraction from international issues. It is still unclear who will lead the foreign ministry, but Rizal Sukma will probably continue to advise him. Odds are the foreign minister will ultimately be a career diplomat—one steeped in the Indonesian foreign policy tradition.
It will be interesting to watch whether Jokowi’s administration moves quickly to take an expanded regional role and positions itself along the lines he has articulated; toward an interpretation of “independent and active” that more firmly factors Indonesia’s national security into the mix. It will take time, however, to see whether “global maritime axis” is just a buzz phrase borne of domestic policy concerns or represents a genuine evolution in Indonesia’s foreign policy approach.
Ms. Adelle Neary is an Australian foreign service officer and visiting Thawley Fellow in the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Australian Government.