By Susanna Mocker
Indonesia has been described as “the most important country we know least about.” With the upcoming Brussels visit of President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) in April, it is timely to address this shortcoming. In the 15 months of his presidency the way Indonesia relates to the world has changed markedly in several areas.
First, Indonesia used to be the region’s loud and clear voice for the promotion of democracy and human rights. This was no purely altruistic choice. After the turmoil of democratic transition, former President Yudhoyono put foreign policy and state branding at the forefront to readjust observers’ perceptions and thereby to attract foreign investment. The message sent was clear: Indonesia is the world’s third-biggest democracy and features a Muslim majority society and thereby manages what too many consider squaring the circle. Importantly, Indonesia did not preach democracy, but sought a frank exchange on the topic. Countries as diverse as Iran, Turkey and Timor-Leste routinely followed Indonesia’s invitation to the annual Bali Democracy Forum.
Meanwhile this showcase of Indonesian soft power has been downgraded to ministerial level. In protest at Indonesia’s execution of 14 drug smuggling foreign nationals in 2015 the international civil society has sharply criticised Jakarta and the Netherlands and Brazil have temporarily withdrawn their ambassadors. Brazil’s Ambassador has not returned up until today and the Indonesian Ambassador’s credentials have been refused by Brasilia. Indonesia’s overall human rights ranking is sliding, particularly due a lack of implementing constitutionally granted religious minority rights. Similarly, these days Indonesia discusses forbidding the same-sex emoticon on social media despite the given legal protection of LGBTI rights. Clearly, Indonesia cannot use its carefully constructed public diplomacy image to its benefits anymore.
Second, since 1948 Indonesia adhered to the principle of “bebas dan actif”, a free and independent foreign policy. Suitable for its unique country profile, Indonesia sought to build bridges between the global North and South, West and East. Yudhoyono proclaimed a non-alignment policy of a “1000 friends and zero enemies” and took hedging between the US and China to a new level. This seemingly “soft” strategy has successfully served Indonesia’s hard interests. Remarkably for a middle power, it improved its standing in international fora like the G20 and was granted the organisation of a big UN climate change conferenced despite the devastating annual forest fires.
At the 2015 Asian-African Conference Jokowi angered some of Indonesia’s 1000 friends by openly criticising Western financial institutions, which Indonesia had itself benefitted from. What sounded like a pitch for the Chinese Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, was later followed by Indonesia’s accession to the latter. A decision that has many commentators wondering if the hedging strategy has been abandoned in favour of pivoting to China. To be fair, Jokowi has successfully pushed for Indonesia to join TPP. But when visiting Washington more than a year after inauguration, Jokowi inked a strategic partnership agreement which has little substance to it. Instead, Defense Minister Ryacudu criticised the US power projection in the South China Sea. Elsewhere, the EU has been waiting for a new Indonesian ambassador for months now, providing for unnecessary irritation.
Third, ASEAN used to be a focus of Indonesian foreign policy not least because it is a vehicle for hedging and normative value promotion. For a long time, Indonesia spurred ASEAN integration for instance by sponsoring its declaration on human rights. Indonesia played the role of the benevolent hegemon, like Germany does in the EU, by keeping a lower profile than its role as the region’s biggest economy would have allowed it, addressing long-standing fears by ASEAN member states that Indonesia might be “too big” for ASEAN.
Nowadays, Indonesia does not engage in ASEAN as actively as it used to, and it also alienates it neighbours by skipping summit sessions and more importantly by blowing up 70 fishing vessels of the Philippines’ and Vietnam on Indonesian National Day. While making a point about illegal fishing in Indonesian waters is fair, it could have been communicated in ASEAN’s spirit of “Amity and Cooperation”.
So what are the drivers behind these observed U-turns in foreign policy? First, Jokowi was never elected for his grand foreign policy visions, but for the pragmatic economic reform ideas of the former furniture seller and the corruption control demonstrated as Jakarta’s major. Struggling to deliver on the promised 7% GDP growth, Jokowi directs his attention to economic policy and foreign policy takes a backseat.
Second, this is reinforced by a reported personal disliking of diplomatic settings and inexperience in this field. Even the most experienced and professional foreign minister, like Indonesia’s Retno, cannot always make up for the absence of a president. Indonesia is currently the only G20 member without a foreign policy unit in the President’s office.
Third, party politics do not play out in Jokowi’s favour. Not only is he a newcomer to the “Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle”, he is at loggerheads with its head, the former President Sukarnopurtri who is emblematic of the establishment that Jokowi wanted to break with. While recent support from the opposition is encouraging, Jokowi’s challenge remains to stay true to the values that won him the vote of the Indonesian people, while also adapting the leadership qualities he will need to push through much needed economic reforms. This includes forging a coherent foreign policy and constructively engaging Indonesia’s “1000 friends”. Jokowi would not be the first president who can weather a crisis at home by going abroad.