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A Retreat From Multilateralism: Foreign Policy Restructuring Under Jokowi

23 Dec 2015
Sophie Qin
Mr. Jokowi and JK. Photo Source: uyeah (Flickr). Creative Commons.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has forged a new foreign policy approach for Indonesia since assuming office in October 2014. The Jokowi Administration’s foreign policy is predicated on maintaining Indonesian sovereignty and intensifying economic diplomacy. These priorities represent a significant departure from those of Jokowi’s predecessor, former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY).

Indonesia’s foreign policy under SBY was characterised by outward-looking internationalism. SBY believed “free and active” engagement in multilateralism was the most ”constructive” way of fulfilling Indonesia’s national interests. The SBY Administration saw Indonesia take independent positions on major international issues, such as the conflict in Syria and climate change, while actively engaging in multilateral forums including the G20, the United Nations and the WTO.

SBY was a proponent of Indonesia’s role as a shaper of regional norms and regimes. In 2013, SBY’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa asserted, ‘Indonesia has always projected itself as part of the solution’. Furthermore, SBY saw ASEAN as the primary framework through which to pursue regional solutions. The former President actively promoted democracy and human rights and was instrumental in the formation of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. Under SBY, ASEAN formed the “cornerstone” and “mainstay” of Indonesia’s foreign policy. Moreover, SBY believed that ‘ASEAN should continue to be the centre of gravity of the integration process,’ which would see the eventuation of the ASEAN Community.

Observers have described Jokowi’s foreign policy approach as inward looking and reflective of a narrow nationalism. These labels stand directly opposed to SBY’s stance, which rejected ‘narrow nationalism’ in favour of ‘outward looking nationalism.’

Indeed, Jokowi has not demonstrated his predecessor’s keenness to promote Indonesia’s role as a shaper of regional norms. In fact, Jokowi has expressed his frustration at the failure of multilateral institutions – including the UN, World Bank, ADB, and IMF – to deliver solutions to the challenges confronting the global economy. Moreover, Jokowi has signalled an end to SBY’s “thousand friends, and zero enemies” mission statement. Following his first round of significant multilateral meetings as President in November 2014 at the G20, ASEAN Summit and APEC, Jokowi claimed he would prioritise relationships that afforded significant benefits for Indonesia, saying ‘If It’s not beneficial, I won’t do it’.

In September 2015, Foreign Minister Marsudi defended the Jokowi’s Administration’s foreign policy approach, asserting that Jakarta had conducted over 100 bilateral meetings while maintaining a “rock solid commitment” to international engagement. However, her speech noticeably lacked a single reference to ASEAN, as is customarily expected in such a statement from an Indonesian foreign minister. Indeed, Jokowi’s retreat from ASEAN was verified when Rizal Sukma, Jokowi’s foreign policy advisor, declared ‘We used to say that ASEAN is the cornerstone of our foreign policy. Now, we say ASEAN is a cornerstone of our foreign policy’.

Some commentators noted that SBY’s departure would leave a “void” in the foreign policy realm that Jokowi may not be able to fill. Certainly, SBY’s leadership provided the political stability and economic growth conducive to a more activist foreign policy. It must be acknowledged, however, that SBY’s focus on foreign relations left a large volume of domestic issues – such as infrastructure, healthcare, and corruption – unaddressed in Indonesia. Jokowi’s inward looking tendency reflects his recognition that these pressing issues, which affect the immediate wellbeing of Indonesians, must be addressed.

Jokowi has not lost interest in foreign policy but simply possesses a different understanding of what constitutes “constructive” foreign policy to SBY. Jokowi’s concentration on bilateral relationships reflects his administration’s prioritising of results-driven foreign policy. The President’s attention on domestic reform means that he is inclined to only pursue foreign policy that has the capacity to directly benefit the domestic agenda and the Indonesian people – hence the “pro-people diplomacy”.

Jokowi’s Global Maritime Fulcrum policy, recognised as his signature foreign policy, provides a good example of Jakarta’s new approach. The policy is strategically designed to address the massive infrastructure development required to unlock Indonesia’s domestic economic integration and drive growth. As such, Jokowi perceives the strengthening of bilateral, rather than multilateral, relationships as the most efficient policy for attracting foreign investment to meet the USD $6 billion required to develop Indonesia’s port infrastructure.

While the rationale behind Jokowi’s foreign policy reorientation can be understood, Indonesia’s retreat from its engagement with ASEAN still presents a major challenge for the organisation’s objectives. In particular, the success of the ASEAN Community launch on December 31 2015 is at stake. The perception that Indonesia – as ASEAN’s de facto leader that comprises 40 percent of ASEAN’s total population and GDP – has withdrawn its commitment to the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) could have significant impact on other member states’ willingness to compromise and integrate.

Jokowi’s hardline approach to defending its sovereignty, particularly in the maritime domain, has potential to become a divisive force within ASEAN. Jakarta’s sinking of 38 illegal fishing vessels belonging to ASEAN states in August demonstrates Jokowi’s commitment to delivering on his promises and not shying away from tensions with Indonesia’s neighbours.

ASEAN states should capitalise on Jokowi’s conviction to stamp out illegal fishing and establish permanent mechanisms to deal with transnational crime more broadly. An ASEAN-led framework would encourage Jakarta to rediscover its leadership role in a multilateral setting while presenting a cost-effective solution for its stagnant economy.

As for the AEC, ASEAN and Jakarta must jointly commit to engaging and empowering Indonesia’s vulnerable small and medium enterprises, which are inadequately prepared for enhanced competition compared with their counterparts in Singapore and Malaysia. Ultimately, engaging ordinary Indonesians at the grassroots level, particularly given Jokowi’s people-centred priorities, is paramount to reinvigorating Jakarta’s commitment to regional integration.

Sophie Qin is currently undertaking a Masters of International Relations at the University of Melbourne. This piece draws upon research undertaken during her studies. She is also an AIIA National Office Intern. This article may be republished under a Creative Commons License.