Indonesia's foreign policy and the changing global architecture
We have to be clear what our foreign policy objectives are
07 December 2015
By: Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar


Muhammad Rosyidin’s article in the October-December 2015 edition of Strategic Review provides an insight into contemporary Indonesian foreign policy. Rosyidin argues that Indonesia needs to embrace the concept of “niche diplomacy” as the way forward, with our foreign policy focusing on a single international issue in order to make its voice heard.

Despite the article’s convincing argument for Indonesia’s improvement in its international performance, I believe it missed one important point: foreign policy doctrine. While the nation needs to embrace improvement in its diplomatic agenda, first it has to address what it actually wants in global politics. To that end, this article examines the current foreign policy doctrine of President Joko Widodo.

Unclear direction?

There is some confusion among international relations observers when looking at Indonesia’s current foreign policy. Since taking office, President Joko’s administration has delivered strong nationalist rhetoric on the global stage, a reversal from the pragmatist approach of the previous administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

In a speech at the Asian-African Conference this year, President Joko called for radical reform of international institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. He said considers those institutions “obsolete” and a better global architecture is needed to develop Asian and African countries.

Many international relations scholars share the optimism of this speech. It reminds us of the rhetoric used by former President Soekarno to lead Asian African countries, at that time, calling for independence and the end of colonialism. Observers such as Hikmahanto Juwana, for example, optimistically said that Jokowi’s strong position on his foreign policy approach reflected a need to make Indonesia more visible in international politics (The Jakarta Post, 25/6).

However, several policies taken by the Jokowi administration, as well as statements from ministers, show that the President lacks a consistent, strong foreign policy doctrine in dealing with contemporary global issues.

In October, at a meeting with US President Barrack Obama, Jokowi declared Indonesia’s interest in joining the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. It is unclear whether this statement was serious or not, but declaring such an interest in the presence of the US President was inconsistent with a speech he made several months previously that was more negative on the TPP, something that was picked up on by the Indonesian media.

President Joko’s approach to regional politics is also vague. Taking an unclear position at several Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) ministerial meetings (most recently at a meeting of Asean defense ministers, he seems to be relegating Asean unity to the sidelines. One example is the statement to the press that China’s growing involvement in South China Sea should be taken to an international arbitration forum. This position reflects inconsistency with Indonesia’s previous stance of not taking sides in the dispute.

Indonesia seems to place bilateral meetings as the priority in conducting foreign policy, but tends to be very selfish in responding to regional issues (such as the South China Sea) rather than maintaining Asean unity.  Although his speeches at several regional forums (such as the G-20 and Asean summits) delivered strong rhetoric, follow-ups have yet to be seen.

It is important for us, before moving on to Rosyidin’s “niche diplomacy” to be clear on Indonesia’s position. How can Indonesia deal with the prevailing global architecture? Understanding the changing concept of foreign policy and the need for a consistent doctrine would be a good starting point.  

Changing architecture

So what is at stake? From a foreign policy perspective, it seems that Indonesia has yet to develop a clear, strong doctrine that guides its foreign policy at all ministerial levels. While Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi, at her first press briefing in November 2014, mentioned a shift to “Pro-People Diplomacy,” a more strategic derivation of this approach has yet to be formulated.

It is important to bear in our mind that foreign policy nowadays is not merely related to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since international politics has developed and reached across various sectors and actors, the concept of foreign policy should be broadened. It now comprises multi-sectoral approaches (involving economics, environment, energy, and many other ministerial bodies) and is connected with many actors other than representatives of the state, such as business actors and international non-government organizations (NGOs). Foreign policy requires a more strategic framework to deal with a diverse range of issues.

Asean is a prime example, bringing together many sectors as foreign policy actors. For example, it now deals with education, sport, and maritime as well as defense or economic issues that belong to specific ministerial bodies. Therefore, Asean is no longer a club for the foreign affairs elite in Pejambon, but should also involve related ministers.

It is also visible that foreign policy stakeholders are not only state officials. Multinational corporations and NGOs use the international sphere as a place for negotiation. The Asean People’s Forum is a good example of how non-state actors participate in the regional decision-making process, challenging the state’s orthodox position as the unitary actor in international politics.

This shifting concept of foreign policy implies the importance of stronger policy coordination, particularly when Indonesia has to deal with regional issues. It is here that Jokowi’s foreign policy lacks a comprehensive doctrine. Overlapping statements from different ministers in Indonesian or foreign media reflects our confusion when dealing with complex global/regional issues.

This problem needs to be resolved. The lack of a foreign policy doctrine can prevent Indonesia taking a leading position in the upcoming Asean Economic Community (AEC), where we are expected to act as a stabilizing hand in the region as the biggest member state. On a global level, this confusion can also put Indonesia in a vulnerable position in the power politics between the United States and China

President Joko needs to formulate two important things to solve this problem.

Firstly, a specific foreign policy roadmap that comprises all ministerial elements dealing with global issues. He should formulate this concept through a relevant analysis of world politics and its approach to engagement, as well as a multi-sectoral analysis and approach to deal with global issues.

Secondly, he needs to formulate guidelines for each ministerial body to deal with global issues that often intersect various ministerial sectors. It is in this case that we need guidelines to welcome the AEC at the end of 2015, both for particular ministerial bodies and local government. Improving policy coordination is also important to ensure Indonesia’s position in Asean does not overlap other ministerial/local government business.

In this regard, appointing foreign policy advisors/special staff will be important to formulate a concise, comprehensive foreign policy. It is likely that foreign policy will only become more complex in the future; therefore, building a strong, comprehensive foreign policy doctrine is a vital, immediate task for President Joko and his administration.

Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar studies Politics with Research Methods at the University of Sheffield, UK.


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