Yang Razali Kassim, For The Straits Times

Clues to presidential contenders' foreign policy views

As Indonesians head to the polls on July 9 to choose their president, a writer looks at what a win by either contender means for Asean and foreign policy.

Presidential rivals Mr Prabowo Subianto (left) and Mr Joko Widodo. Although both would seek to strengthen Asean, Mr Subianto, a former general, is likely to take a harder line on foreign policy.
Presidential rivals Mr Prabowo Subianto (left) and Mr Joko Widodo. Although both would seek to strengthen Asean, Mr Subianto, a former general, is likely to take a harder line on foreign policy.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Growing tensions in the South China Sea coinciding with a more assertive China is presenting a dramatic backdrop to Indonesia's presidential election.

Whether it is Prabowo Subianto or Joko Widodo, the next president will have to deal with the impact of these tensions as the leader of South-east Asia's largest country - with the world's fourth largest population and the potential to be a regional power.

If campaign rhetoric and political platforms are indicators of the contenders' future foreign policy, some clues are emerging from their response to the tensions which even point to their aspirations for Indonesia as a regional maritime giant to be reckoned with.

Mr Prabowo, a former special forces general, is used to strategic thinking. He sees the biggest threat to Indonesia as external, coming from territorial disputes and overlapping claims.

The role of the government under his leadership, he adds, would be to protect Indonesia's national interests. During a televised presidential debate on June 22, Mr Prabowo declared Indonesia's territorial integrity as a "core national interest" that cannot be compromised.

He sees no need to settle disputes through armed conflict, vowing to pursue a "good neighbour policy". But it is hard not to get the impression that a Prabowo presidency will respond with a harder line towards China should Beijing continue its aggressive posture in the region.

Tellingly and significantly, Mr Prabowo's vision statement recasts Jakarta's long-standing foreign policy principle from "bebas aktif" (independent and active) to "bebas, aktif, tegas" (independent, active and firm).

The attitude of Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, towards territorial disputes is much more nuanced, even suggestive of a softer line. Asked during the television debate what his strategy would be if Indonesian territory was claimed or occupied by others, his top priority would be diplomacy - especially when the situation was not clear.

But when the claimed territory was clearly Indonesian, he would be firm and "kick up a fuss". "Don't think I can't be firm," he says.

But Mr Joko generally prefers Indonesia to take a cautious approach, focused on its role as a problem solver while preserving relations with Beijing. "If we can play a role, that's better. But we have to be careful not to spoil our relationship with China. If we are not confident of resolving the problem, we should not step in," he says.

Should this posture become foreign policy, it will contrast markedly with Indonesia's stance under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has been effective as a regional facilitator in Asean's management of the South China Sea disputes with Beijing. It will have implications for Asean's stance of collective concern over the disputes while respecting the right of claimant states, which include four Asean members, to pursue their own bilateral tracks.

In fact, Mr Prabowo questioned if Mr Joko's posture was not in conflict with Indonesia and Asean's interests. "Do we abstain or defend our Asean partners who are claimants?"

Under pressure, Mr Joko stuck to his preferred cautious approach for Indonesia - unless Jakarta can clearly help find a solution. "If we can't find a solution, what for? We don't have a conflict there. But if we step in, there should be a solution."

This stance, however, may also be problematic for Indonesia because China's creeping maritime claims in the South China Sea may overlap in the Natuna Islands, which Indonesia says it owns. Indeed, the defence people are already worried about China's overlapping claim to the Natunas.

While Mr Joko may not have projected his foreign policy stance elegantly enough, it does not mean that he does not have a clear foreign policy worldview. He is backed by a competent team of foreign policy advisers. A closer look at Mr Joko's political platform shows that his team has a foreign policy philosophy that might shape his foreign policy if he comes to power.

Mr Joko's Vision and Mission paper specifies that he wants to build up Indonesia as a regional maritime power "that is respected in the East Asian region". His advisers want Indonesia to play a role in global affairs through "middle power diplomacy", focusing on the Indo-Pacific region which Indonesia strategically straddles as an archipelagic state.

A Joko presidency would aim to resolve boundary issues with 10 of its neighbours; guarantee Indonesia's territorial integrity and maritime sovereignty; secure Indonesia's exclusive economic zone; and suppress maritime rivalry among the major powers by encouraging them to resolve their territorial disputes.

There are direct implications for Asean from this worldview: Under Mr Joko, Indonesia would consolidate its leadership in Asean, strengthen Asean cooperation and secure Asean centrality. Indonesia would also strengthen the regional architecture, especially the East Asia Summit, which his advisers see as a platform that could prevent big-power hegemony in East Asia. Indonesia under Mr Joko would also expand bilateral strategic partnerships in Asean.

It is likely that Indonesia under Mr Prabowo would similarly stick with Asean, as intimated by his professed solidarity with the Asean claimant states vis-a-vis China. The difference is that his would be a more forceful presidency than Mr Joko's, and Mr Prabowo is also likely to show more independent thinking in foreign policy - which makes him more difficult to predict.

For all these reasons, who will emerge as Indonesia's next leader will be of direct relevance to the region. Managing regional tensions will enter a new phase whether Prabowo Subianto or Joko Widodo becomes Indonesia's seventh president.


The writer is Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.