The Trouble With Indonesia’s Foreign Policy Priorities Under Jokowi
Image Credit: Flickr/ uyeah

The Trouble With Indonesia’s Foreign Policy Priorities Under Jokowi


On January 8, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi officially outlined her office’s foreign policy priorities in her first annual policy statement in Jakarta. Indonesian foreign policy over the next five years under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Retno said, will be focused on three priorities: maintaining Indonesia’s sovereignty, enhancing the protection of Indonesian citizens, and intensifying economic diplomacy.

Those who follow Indonesia closely will not find any of these particularly surprising. They are in line with Jokowi’s “firm, dignified, down to earth, pro-people” foreign policy which aims to secure the needs of the Indonesian people first and foremost – a welcome correction, some argue, to the overly elitist and internationalist worldview of his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Retno as well as Jokowi’s advisers have also been repeating these priorities since October last year, and they have already begun work on them.

Yet while these key priorities make sense and may provide useful direction for Indonesian foreign policy going forward, each of them could pose significant challenges for Jokowi and his team moving forward.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Retno said the first priority – protecting Indonesia’s sovereignty – will be accomplished by responding firmly to any intrusions into Indonesian territory and by settling maritime borders. From Indonesia’s perspective, that makes sense. Jokowi has repeatedly said that around 5,000 ships – mostly from neighboring Southeast Asian states and China – operate illegally in Indonesian waters every day, making a mockery out of the country’s sovereignty. Jakarta also has outstanding border problems with several countries, ranging from Malaysia to Papua New Guinea, that can flare up from time to time.

But the way Indonesia has chosen to protect its sovereignty thus far has spooked its neighbors. In particular, Jakarta’s public sinking of illegal fishing vessels has been seen as an extreme measure and has resurrected old, albeit sometimes overblown, fears about a more assertive Indonesia. Where some see strength as being the problem, others see weakness. Deterring foreign vessels through theater may be a preferred solution given the fact that, according to Indonesia former navy chief of staff Admiral Marsetio last year, its navy only has two submarines and four frigates to support the nation’s maritime defenses, when it requires at least 12 submarines and 16 frigates to do so.

Settling maritime borders is a useful step, and Indonesia has made some notable strides in this direction over the past few years, most prominently with the Philippines. But even Jokowi’s advisers acknowledge that narrowing differences on some of these unresolved border problems will be a drawn out affair, particularly in complex cases such as Malaysia. It is also worth recalling that talks between Indonesia and the Philippines, which were successfully concluded in 2014, began two decades earlier, even if they negotiated in fits and starts.

Similarly, enhancing the protection of Indonesian citizens is no doubt a laudable goal. According to the head of the Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI), 1.8 million of 6.2 million Indonesians working overseas are undocumented and, as a result, often unprotected. Many of them encounter abuse, receive unfair wages, or suffer harsh prosecution from foreign governments. Retno in her statement usefully pledged that Indonesia would only agree to send migrant workers to countries who formally agree to protect its workers, and that Jakarta would work toward a legal instrument for protecting migrant workers in ASEAN as well.

Actually addressing Indonesia’s migrant worker problem, however, will be a Herculean task. Getting a sense of the scale of the problem is itself a challenge, as Retno herself has admitted in the past. Data differ among Indonesian agencies, and the International Labor Organization estimates that the number of Indonesians working overseas is at least double the documented figure. Indonesia’s plan to repatriate all 1.8 million illegal workers is bold, but there are outstanding questions about its feasibility, including the cost of doing so.

And for all the focus on foreign governments, employers, and conditions, a key reason why Indonesia has this problem in the first place is largely because many migrants find the process of applying for legal work too expensive or cumbersome. The head of BNP2TKI, Nusron Wahid, says he plans to simplify that process. But those who know Indonesia well realize this will be a tough challenge in and of itself.

Few would disagree that intensifying economic diplomacy ought to implicitly be a priority for the foreign policy of Indonesia – or any country, really. But Retno’s confirmation that the Foreign Ministry will form a task force specifically dedicated to this under the vice minister for foreign affairs suggests this may be taken to a whole new level in the Jokowi years. Given Indonesia’s need for infrastructure, foreign investment and new sources of growth to offset its overdependence on commodities, emphasizing this makes sense.

Getting there, though, will not be easy. Most obviously, there is a little bit of a Catch-22 in that attracting foreign investment hinges on whether Jokowi can accomplish some of his domestic reforms, but those domestic reforms may require foreign investment to succeed in the first place. Take his focus on improving maritime connectivity, which is a critical component of his much-ballyhooed vision for Indonesia as a “global maritime nexus” between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Jokowi has already begun unveiling a plan for how this might work, and it includes building an integrated network of ports and tollways over the next few years.

But like many of Indonesia’s challenges, the problem is not in the big picture, but down in the weeds. In this case, the struggle may be trying to get individual projects off the ground. Ajiph Razifwan Anwar, the chairman of the Sea Transport Forum of the Indonesian Transportation Society, warned last November that building 24 ports alone will cost around $24 billion, and that local investors simply cannot finance them because of the large funding required. Foreign investment is the logical alternative, but that will likely require some bold changes in the country’s regulatory environment, including streamlining permitting, harmonizing regulations, and curbing corruption. One can only hope that getting around this Catch-22 proves easier than it looks.

Beyond concerns in each of these priorities, Indonesia’s foreign policy under Jokowi more generally faces broader challenges. If Yudhoyono’s foreign policy was criticized for being too elitist and internationally oriented, then the very domestic, realpolitik flavor of Jokowi’s worldview risks being perceived – rightfully or wrongfully – as overcorrecting this and being too insular or selfish. If countries believe Jokowi’s foreign policy is geared too much toward winning votes at home rather than strengthening friendships abroad, they could also adjust accordingly and in turn complicate Indonesia’s international aspirations. More specific anxieties also continue to linger. One worry has been how Indonesia’s foreign policy attention will be distributed, with some concerned that Jakarta may focus less on ASEAN relative to other regions of the globe.

Retno insisted in her statement that Indonesia would not turn its back on the world, outlining the active role it wanted to play in ASEAN as well as other regions including the Indian Ocean, the South Pacific and the Middle East. But given the domestic-oriented foreign policy priorities outlined, that perception is likely to persist. Some of Jokowi’s advisers have also admitted that specific concerns by observers — like the relatively decreased emphasis on ASEAN — may indeed be true.

The challenges inherent in each of these three priorities Retno outlined, and Indonesia’s overall foreign policy approach, do not mean they are not worth pursuing or that they are doomed to fail. But they do suggest that Jokowi and Retno may be in for a tougher road ahead than some international and domestic observers, still hung over from the Jokowi’s unquestionably historic election victory last year, may believe.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief