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Indonesia's foreign policy limitations

Published on Apr 30, 2014 6:42 PM

Former Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri's confirmation earlier last month that popular Jakarta governor Joko Widodo will be her party's presidential candidate reminds us that Indonesia will soon have a new leader. The end of the decade-long Yudhoyono era poses questions for Singapore about what kind of neighbour Indonesia will be under its new president.

The issue takes on additional interest for Singapore in the wake of its row with Indonesia over the naming of the Usman-Harun frigate. The incident prompted some to conclude that Indonesia is becoming more assertive.

Certainly, Indonesia is well aware of its rising prominence in international affairs in recent years, a prominence it has achieved through successful democratisation and rapid economic growth. Indonesia's new status in the world, including international interest in Indonesian ideas on global problems, has been a recurring theme in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's annual independence day addresses. Dr Yudhoyono also told military officers last year that Indonesia must have a larger and more modern military than its neighbours in view of its extensive territory.

The possibility that Mr Prabowo Subianto - Mr Joko's leading rival - might become president makes many doubly wary. A former general with a chequered human rights record who now leads a nationalist party, Mr Prabowo derives his popular appeal from his image as a strong leader.

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Background story

For the moment, Indonesia's aspirations for a global role are not matched by an ability to flex its muscles in support of foreign policy goals. Instead, Indonesia must prosecute its far-reaching international agenda with limited means.