Indonesia: Foreign Policy Under Jokowi and Prabowo
Image Credit: REUTERS/Beawiharta

Indonesia: Foreign Policy Under Jokowi and Prabowo

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The emergence of Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and former special forces general Prabowo Subianto as two Indonesian presidential candidates has prompted widespread discussion about how both candidates differ from each other. What foreign policy changes should be anticipated from the upcoming leadership?

A good start to understanding the candidates’ foreign policies is to look at the policy platforms they submitted to the Election Commission a few days ago. In his 42-page document, Jokowi outlines a well-structured foreign policy vision in around 500 words. He details four foreign policy priorities: (1) promoting the “archipelagic state” concept as the Indonesia’s main foreign policy identity, which emphasizes the need for solving its territorial dispute by peaceful means; (2) carrying out “middlepowermanship” through active participation in various international forums; (3) expanding the regionalism project by strengthening the Indo-Pacific regional architecture; and (4) widening the public outreach on foreign policymaking. Prabowo on the other hand, explains his foreign policy in three brief sentences: (1) maintaining the Indonesia’s Bebas Aktif (Free and Active) principle; (2) making a more active effort to deal with global climate change; and (3) protecting the rights of Indonesian migrant workers.

Jokowi’s detailed and structured foreign policy might come from his competent international relations advisors. One of his most prominent confidants is Dr. Rizal Sukma, the executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Sukma, along with two or three other candidates among career diplomats, should be closely watched as a leading candidate to be the next foreign minister. In addition to his strong academic background, Sukma’s position as a member of the central executive board of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organization, which could make him a “representative” of more puritan Muslim population.

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Prabowo also has some leading international relations experts on his campaign team, such as Harvard graduate and the National Mandate Party’s head of foreign relations Bara Hasibuan. That said, Prabowo’s less detailed foreign policy platform could be a reflection of the difficulty he has reconciling differences between his nationalistic rhetoric and other parties’ diverse foreign policy orientations. During the recent legislative elections, Prabowo’s party Gerindra consistently advocated for more “self-reliant” stances. After establishing a formal alliance with four Islamic political parties, Prabowo has to deal with aspirations for a more “Islamic foreign policy.” Even more complex, he must wed his self-reliance rhetoric with his running mate Hatta Rajasa’s public perception as a neoliberal policymaker, reflecting his endorsement of a fuel subsidy reduction when he was an economic minister.

Of course, making a foreign policy comparison based only on vague glimpses of campaign platforms would be incautious. Nevertheless, these political platforms do offer hints at the conduct of foreign policy. The success of the new president’s foreign policy will depend heavily on his ability to work with foreign policy actors and solve complex interagency coordination issues. Jokowi likely prefers bottom-up foreign policymaking, gathering as much as information from his advisors as he can before choosing a policy path, making his policy rich with careful consideration. Jokowi is not as internationalist as Yudhoyono, but his competent advisors are his strong point. Prabowo, on the other hand, is more instructive and decisive, but less interested in detail. For the detail, Prabowo will let foreign ministry officials take whatever actions and strategies needed, as long as they are in line with his grand policy. This will result in a high degree of foreign policy cohesiveness within the executive government, but on the other hand could lead to confusion among the diplomatic corps in finding the best detailed items to match with his policy outline.

Despite these somewhat contradictory leadership and managerial styles, whoever the president is, there will in general be more continuity than ideological and substantial foreign policy change for the next five years. This is not entirely because Indonesia lacks the resources to pursue radical transformation, as some observers have argued, but because of the long-standing nature of Indonesian politics, which always emphasizes the importance of finding “consensus.” As with his predecessors, including the incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the next president will prefer to satisfy demands from diverse foreign policy interests at home by choosing a “middle way.” Whoever wins, the government will be a coalition of five or six political parties in which each has diverse foreign policy aspirations, forcing the upcoming president to take a middle-ground strategy toward diplomacy. In dealing with the South China Sea dispute for instance, Indonesia will not follow either the Philippines’ path of aligning with the United States or Cambodia’s choice of close relations with China. Instead, the next leader will still emphasize the need for ASEAN cohesiveness and at the same time advocate peaceful management of the conflict.

The new president will inherit Yudhoyono’s strong legacy of active involvement in a broad range of issues and forums. There will be some new initiatives, especially related to demand for a more active global role as a result of Indonesia’s increasing economic weight. Nonetheless, Indonesia’s foreign policy direction will likely follow current practices, which are based on three pillars: (1) using ASEAN as its foreign policy cornerstone; (2) exploiting its soft power advantages, such as compatibility between Islam and democracy; and (3) giving economic diplomacy a growing priority.

A clearer picture of the new president’s approach to foreign policy will begin to emerge shortly after his inauguration on October 20 this year. An early test will be the ASEAN Summit from November 10-12 in Myanmar, where the Indonesian president will be expected by other ASEAN leaders to provide clear and firm leadership on difficult issues, such as growing tensions in the South China Sea, ongoing turmoil in Thailand, and widespread pessimism toward the ASEAN Economic Community scheduled to be created in 2015. A few days later, the president will attend the G20 Summit in Brisbane. Aside from the G-20 issues themselves, the visit to Australia will be watched with interest by the people of both nations for any gesture in handling the deterioration in bilateral relations that has come in the wake of last year’s spy scandal.

Nationalist rhetoric offered by the candidates on the campaign trail should not automatically be construed as auguring an inward-looking Indonesia. As is the case around the globe, the Indonesian election is always about domestic politics. Once a candidate takes power, there will be a tendency to tone down the grand pronouncements and turn to pragmatism.

Awidya Santikajaya is a PhD candidate at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, the Australian National University. He also runs a blog called The Indonesianists.  

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