Indonesia's foreign policy limitations

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.

Opinion polls, however, suggest that apprehensions regarding a Prabowo presidency will not be put to the test. He has polled well behind Mr Joko for more than a year. And only four months remain until the presidential election for Mr Prabowo to bridge the gap.

Moreover, even if Mr Prabowo were to become president, he would face real resource limitations should he try to make Indonesia a more assertive regional power.

Indonesia's current rise is starting from a low base, a fact that is easy to overlook given its global profile. A decade of growth averaging 5.7 per cent per annum has seen Indonesia become the world's 16th-largest economy, with most projections seeing it rising higher. But this growth has not translated into significant military or economic resources.

Indonesia spends less on its military annually than does Singapore, and only around a third of what Australia spends. It has fallen well short of its target of spending 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product on defence. Observers expect its military to modernise only in a piecemeal fashion over the next decade.

Neither has Indonesia been able to leverage its economic size to gain political clout yet. Its diplomats more often comment that Indonesia has not been able to convert its diplomacy into access to new markets. Nor does Indonesia have a large foreign aid programme, another means states commonly use to exercise soft power. It spent around US$10 million (S$12.6 million) on overseas development aid in 2010, according to estimates by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is a mere fraction of the amount spent by India and China.

Of course, over time, Jakarta will have greater resources to address these constraints if rapid economic growth continues. But it will only be in the longer term that Indonesia transforms in ways that make it stand out from other middle powers, if it does so at all.

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.

In the Middle East, for example, Indonesia is active diplomatically in both the Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, without attaining real influence in either. These conflicts attract strong public interest within Indonesia, as well as demands that the government be more active. Dr Yudhoyono himself acknowledged the limits of Indonesia's influence on Syria last year, when briefing journalists in Russia.

At the time, the United States had foreshadowed military strikes on Syria in response to the Bashar al-Assad regime's apparent use of chemical weapons. Indonesia opposed military strikes, favouring a United Nations-supervised ceasefire and a political solution to the conflict. Despite Indonesia's status as the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world, however, its influence remained limited.

Dr Yudhoyono remarked that Indonesia could not directly influence the situation on the ground, nor powerful countries nor the UN Security Council, even if the Indonesian public wanted it to. What it could do, he said, was engage in active diplomacy to promote Indonesia's recommendations. More broadly, Indonesian diplomats highlight this "power of ideas" approach as a key way Indonesia exerts influence.

Limited resources also push Indonesia towards multilateralism, including maintaining Asean as a key feature of its foreign policy. For as long as Indonesia cannot consistently exert wider influence in its own right, Asean-centred forums like the East Asia Summit remain an important platform for it to play a broader regional role.

Whatever foreign policy ideas the new president holds, this resource limitation will remain and shape Indonesia's character as a neighbour. It both provides an incentive for a new president to continue to seek cooperation and multilateralism, and limits the risk to its neighbours, Singapore included, if Indonesia does indeed elect a more difficult figure as president.


The writer is a senior research fellow in the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of More Talk Than Walk: Indonesia As A Foreign Policy Actor, published by Australia's Lowy Institute in February this year.

S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.