By Invitation

Is Indonesia punching above its weight?

Confounding critics, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has embarked on foreign policy activism in pursuit of his vision of the country as a maritime power.


PRESIDENT Joko Widodo has surprised his people, and many others abroad, in showing a keen interest in foreign affairs since taking office in October.

He has attended summits abroad, made presidential visits to major foreign capitals, and hosted a hastily prepared international conference last month. The man whom the foreign media dubbed "the people's president" was a popular figure in these summits, seeming at ease meeting with foreign leaders.

His assertiveness in foreign policy, including sinking foreign fishing boats and executing foreigners on death row for drug trafficking in spite of pleas from their leaders, has upset neighbours and long-time friends.

And he has kept a safe distance from both the United States and China, sending signals that the fourth most populous nation would not easily be swayed to align with one or the other in this century's emerging superpower rivalry.

Jokowi, as he is popularly called, defied pundits' predictions made before his election that the new President would be so preoccupied with domestic issues that he would have little time for tending to Indonesia's international relations.

For someone with limited exposure to international affairs, the President has also made a radical departure in the way Indonesia conducts its foreign policy. Whether Indonesia can live up to the new foreign policy vision that he has created for the country is another thing.

Indonesia has been accused in the past of punching below its weight in world affairs. Critics said the nation could have done a lot more and played a more active role in global diplomacy commensurate with its growing economic and political strengths.

As the largest member of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), Indonesia could use the organisation to exert influence internationally, so critics have argued.

The tide has turned, however.

Under Jokowi, Indonesia is becoming more assertive, and perhaps a little too confident for its own good. And it is going it alone without Asean.

This raises the question of whether Indonesia is now punching above its weight. But President Joko may want to tread more carefully in future, because some of his policies are coming at the expense of Indonesia's relations with neighbours and friends. They can be counterproductive to Indonesia's national interests and hurt its international standing.

Foreign policy activism

JOKOWI won admiration abroad when he decided to attend all three summits held in November just a few weeks after his inauguration. He travelled to Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit, Naypyitaw for the East Asia Summit and Brisbane in Australia for the meeting of the Group of 20 largest economies in the world. He has made official visits to Tokyo and Beijing as well as most Asean capitals.

He is scheduled to visit the US this summer.

In April, he hosted the meeting to mark the 60th anniversary of the historic 1955 Asia-Africa Conference, attended by over 70 countries with 21 represented by heads of state.

His foreign policy activism, however, goes beyond just meeting other leaders, and this is where the President may have upset some of Indonesia's friends.

Indonesia has sunk boats from Vietnam and Thailand for illegal fishing in the country's vast and largely unprotected waters, angering their governments. But when the Indonesian navy caught a large Chinese boat committing the same offence, Jakarta did not want to take the risk - the boat was impounded and its crew sent to jail.

Jokowi has upset Australia, Brazil and the Netherlands for ignoring their pleas for compassion to spare the lives of their citizens sentenced to death for drug trafficking. Invoking Indonesia's sovereignty, he ignored the requests and ordered their executions. Australia is now reviewing ties with Indonesia, and will likely cut or freeze foreign aid.

While Indonesia has started to become more vocal of China's actions in asserting its territorial claim in the disputed South China Sea, Jokowi has also been careful in not being easily swayed by US entreaties to join the alliance in containing China's growing influence in Asia.

Jokowi has announced Indonesia's intention to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which was initiated by China to rival the Asian Development Bank which is controlled by Japan and the US.

In his speech opening the Asia-Africa Conference, the President criticised the failure of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in managing the global economy, seen as a veiled criticism of the US dominance in the two institutions.

A maritime power

ANYONE looking for clues of where Indonesia's new foreign policy is heading can't go wrong by turning to Jokowi's election manifesto in which he argued that, as the largest archipelagic nation in the world, Indonesia must find and build its political and economic strengths from the vast territorial waters under its sovereignty. He has interchangeably called Indonesia a maritime nation, maritime power, and an Indo-Pacific power.

Once inaugurated, the President set about implementing this vision, with projects such as building a sea-toll network that will link the islands in the archipelago with regular shipping services, constructing sea ports and improving the nation's shipbuilding capacity.

To ensure that Indonesia can protect its vast territorial waters, the capacity of Indonesia's navy and the air force will be bolstered. This would mean convincing the army, the largest of the three services, to agree to a smaller share of the defence budget as Indonesia tries to beef up its maritime and air defence capability.

Everything else, including his foreign and defence policies, has been realigned to support the Jokowi vision of Indonesia.

While Asean remains important, Indonesian diplomats today are no longer proclaiming that Asean is the cornerstone of the country's foreign policy. This is happening even as Asean is preparing to become a community of sorts at the end of this year.

Presidential power plays

INDONESIA has always harboured power ambitions since independence in 1945, knowing that it is one of the largest countries in the world.

The Constitution mandates that Indonesia play an active role in promoting global peace and prosperity, and all seven presidents have tried to live up to this expectation, with different measures of success.

Even with limited economic resources, Indonesia under president Sukarno made some marks in global affairs - holding the Bandung Asia-Africa Conference in 1955, and six years later, with India, Egypt, Burma, Ghana and Yugoslavia, launching the Non-Aligned Movement to give Third World countries an alternative to steer clear of the Cold War contests. President Sukarno also made a few foreign policy missteps along the way, including the disastrous "Konfrontasi" against Malaysia that hurt Indonesia's international standing.

President Suharto took a little while before he launched Indonesia to the global stage. Under the able foreign minister Ali Alatas, Indonesia was instrumental in ending the Cambodian war in the 1990s and in turning Asean into one of the most successful regional organisations in the world.

Successive presidents in post-Suharto Indonesia, particularly Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, learnt that increasing political stability and economic development at home afforded Indonesia the opportunity to play a more active role in the global stage.

Dr Yudhoyono took several initiatives, including on global warming, and in organising various dialogues to promote democracy, press freedom, and interfaith dialogues. The world began to pay notice to what is now dubbed the third-largest democracy.

Jakarta's power ambitions however face some reality checks.

It has no foreign aid to dispense and its military is too weak to even protect its own vast waters, let alone project power beyond Indonesia's borders. Financial might and a credible military are essential elements for any country with power ambitions.

This has not stopped Indonesia, under Jokowi, from being more assertive in international affairs, and he enjoys widespread public support, which contrasts with the layers of obstructions he faces in pushing his domestic policies. Most Indonesians cheered when he ordered the sinking of foreign fishing boats and the execution of foreign drug dealers.

Freed from its traditional role of running internal security which is now fully in police hands, the military is starting to focus on national defence. The nation has agreed to allocate the military a larger budget primarily to buy more weapons. Neighbours need not be concerned. Indonesia is making up for lost ground in modernising its military to reach what it sees as the minimum essential force by 2024.

A novice in diplomacy, Jokowi is learning the ropes, and he may make missteps along the way. But this is a man who knows what he wants. His vision of a new Indonesia as a maritime power is crystal clear.

Not so clear is how he intends to achieve that vision. There is no road map of the steps Indonesia needs to take to fulfil its ambitions to become an Asian power.

The Ministry of Defence's last White Paper published in 2008 is clearly outdated, while the concept of Indonesia as a maritime power is alien to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For now, any policy implementing the Jokowi vision of Indonesia as a maritime power will likely be piecemeal and unpredictable.

In the absence of a clear road map, the nation, and Indonesia's neighbours, will simply have to constantly guess what the government's next move is.

And be prepared for some surprises.

The writer is senior editor of The Jakarta Post.