Barely two months after Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo took office in a historic election, he has already stirred fears among some at home and abroad that his country, a traditional leader in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), may be looking beyond the organization in its foreign policy just as the bloc prepares to further its regional integration agenda in 2015.
Statements from Jokowi and his advisers, along with early actions under his tenure, suggest a more bilateral, domestic-oriented foreign policy relative to his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, with a diminished but still important role for ASEAN.
“We used to say ASEAN is the cornerstone of our foreign policy. Now we change it to a cornerstone of our foreign policy,” Rizal Sukma, a foreign policy adviser to Jokowi and the excutive director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Jakarta, told a public forum in Washington, D.C. recently.
Sukma told the audience that while the Jokowi administration would still maintain Indonesia’s traditional “free and active” role in world affairs, his foreign policy would be different from that of his predecessor in that it would focus more on developing bilateral ties – including with countries beyond the Asia-Pacific – and it would be directed first and foremost at benefiting the Indonesian people
Sukma said that Jokowi’s foreign policy would focus more on forging relationships with regions other than the Asia-Pacific. He said Jokowi’s new vision of Indonesia as a global maritime fulcrum in the Pacific and Indian Ocean region (or PACINDO) was much more extensive geographically than the “Indo-Pacific” idea championed by Yudhoyono and his foreign minister Marty Natalegawa.
In line with Jokowi’s worldview, he said Jakarta will likely prioritize deepening relationships with India and the Gulf countries.
“The way you define the map defines how you behave internationally,” Sukma said at the day-long conference organized by the U.S.-Indonesia Society (USINO).
There are also signs that Indonesian foreign policy is becoming more domestic-oriented and bilateral under Jokowi. The president himself has insisted that he will not invest much time in diplomatic relationships that do not benefit Indonesia, a far cry from the days of Yudhoyono where Jakarta sought a “thousand friends, zero enemies.”
“If it’s not beneficial, I won’t do it…We’ll still meet but not too much,” Jokowi said after concluding his first foreign trip abroad last month.
His foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, has also repeatedly suggested that foreign policy under the Jokowi administration would be “people-oriented” and would focus more on advancing bilateral ties with strategic nations rather than multilateralism.
While forging bilateral ties and advancing the national interest are hardly unique to the Jokowi administration, the perceived lack of attention to regionalism compared to the Yudhoyono days thus far has raised alarm bells both at home and in some Southeast Asian capitals, where suspicions of rising Indonesian nationalism linger due to Jakarta’s heft and regional historical animosities.
“There is a public perception that Indonesia is abandoning other aspects of its foreign policy. Now we don’t want that,” Bantarto Bandoro, an international relations expert at the Indonesia Defense University, said.
When Jokowi bluntly told his Southeast Asian counterparts last month during a discussion on the implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) that Indonesia “must ensure that no harm comes to our national interests,” The Jakarta Post urged Jokowi to clarify his position to ASEAN members rather than using rhetoric to appease growing nationalism at home.
“While Indonesia is crucial for the progress of ASEAN, we should remember that we could grow faster as a full part of the regional trading bloc, given mutually beneficial relations. Indonesia should not act as a big brother to other ASEAN members,” the newspaper cautioned in an editorial.
Jokowi’s focus on “national interests” also fed into a growing narrative that protectionist concerns in Indonesia – which accounts for about half of ASEAN’s population and 40 percent of its economic output – may prevent Jakarta from being fully on board as the regional bloc looks to forge a single market and production base under the AEC by the end of 2015. Ngurah Swajaya, Indonesia’s former ambassador to ASEAN, wrote earlier this year that a low awareness of the AEC among businesses as well as government officials had “become a major obstacle” in implementing related measures.
In the security realm, much of the anxiety has been in reaction to Jokowi’s tough crackdown on illegal fishing vessels in Indonesian waters, which he says cause the country to suffer annual losses of over $20 billion. As The Diplomat reported last week, Jokowi and his advisers had suggested that Indonesia’s sinking of three empty Vietnamese boats earlier this month could be followed by more such actions involving vessels from other ASEAN countries and even China.
Farish Noor, a Malaysian political scientist currently a senior fellow with the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, warned that while such populist moves may boost Jokowi’s reputation at home, it risks damaging ASEAN solidarity.
“With ASEAN integration due around the corner…the moves by Indonesia have gone against the spirit of the association, and can lead to the view that these are populist moves calculated to satisfy the electorate. [I]f every country in ASEAN followed the same path – pandering to populism, burning the ships of neighbors, etc – then where will ASEAN head to?” said Noor.
The policy has also inspired a debate within Indonesia. While some have argued that sinking vessels is both a legal and necessary move, others are wary about the implications it could have for Indonesia’s reputation abroad. Legal expert Frans Hendra Winarta said such moves would risk sparking tensions with neighboring countries at a time when ASEAN is seeking to forge a closer community.
“Sinking poaching boats should be the last resort and not a primary one…I am concerned with the way our legal [standing] is heading: showing force but failing to look far ahead,” Frans said.
Despite rising concerns in some quarters about Indonesia’s waning commitment to regionalism, Indonesian ambassador to ASEAN Rahmat Promono dismissed the idea that the Jokowi administration’s preoccupation with domestic issues would see Indonesia scale down its involvement regionally and globally in an interview with The Jakarta Globe.
“There are no grounds for these doubts. President Joko Widodo has guaranteed that Indonesia would actively participate in efforts to make the world a more peaceful place,” he said.
Speaking after Jokowi’s adviser Rizal Sukma at the USINDO conference last week, Donald Emmerson, head of the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University, also stressed that predictions that Indonesian foreign policy would be more bilateral and less deferential to ASEAN may be proven wrong with time.
Disagreements between Jokowi and his team, along with changes in the international environment, may ensure that “what Jokowi wants now may not be what he gets,” and “what he wants now may not be what he wants later,” Emmerson, a longtime Indonesia expert, noted.