Indonesia’s president defended his administration’s foreign policy record in a speech in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, denying that it was inward-looking and stressing that the country would continue to balance realizing its national interests and fulfilling its international obligations.
A little over a year since Joko “Jokowi” Widodo took office following a historic election, some international observers continue to criticize his administration for being overly inward-looking and self-interested (See: “The Trouble With Indonesia’s Foreign Policy Under Jokowi”).
But, echoing the same message his foreign minister Retno Marsudi had delivered to Washington during her public address in September, Jokowi told an audience at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, that Indonesia’s commitment to international engagement remained as strong as ever (See: “Indonesia Defends its Foreign Policy Record Under Jokowi”).
“Ladies and gentleman, please take another look at Indonesia,” Jokowi said. “We are not going away. We are not becoming inward-looking.”
“Our interest in regional and international engagement remains as strong as ever and will be stronger in the years to come. Our foreign policy will continue to reflect both our national interests and our international obligations,” he added.
Contrary to suggestions that Southeast Asia’s largest state was turning away from ASEAN, Jokowi said that the regional organization remained critically important to his administration’s foreign policy (See: “Is Indonesia Turning Away from ASEAN?”).
“ASEAN is of critical importance to us. We will preserve and strengthen ASEAN centrality. We will safeguard ASEAN strategic autonomy from great power competition,” he declared.
He also stressed the need to strengthen regional multilateral institutions, including the East Asia Summit, and welcomed U.S. engagement in preserving peace and stability: “We welcome a sustained and comprehensive U.S. engagement in East Asia. The region will benefit from American political, strategic and most importantly economic engagement.”
Jokowi’s speech was part of his inaugural visit to the United States, where Washington and Jakarta sought to elevate bilateral ties to a strategic level as The Diplomat had reported ahead of the trip (See: “Exclusive: US, Indonesia to Strengthen Partnership During Jokowi Visit“).
Addressing the South China Sea issue in some detail, Jokowi reiterated Indonesia’s status as a non-claimant and urged all sides to exercise restraint just hours after U.S. navy carried out a much-anticipated freedom of navigation operation near China’s controversial artificial islands there (See: “Indonesia Calls for South China Sea Restraint Amid US-China Tensions”).
He stressed the need for China and ASEAN to make progress on a binding code of conduct (CoC) for the sake of peace and stability.
“We need peace and stability in the region and we want ASEAN countries and China to start discussing about the content of the code of conduct,” he said.
Jokowi also repeated his familiar refrain that Indonesia wants to play “an active role” in this issue (See: “No, Indonesia’s South China Sea Approach Has Not Changed”).
On maritime issues more generally, Jokowi said that as a maritime nation, Indonesia’s future depends on how it manages the sea for the benefit of the people, which is why he has articulated his vision of the country as a global maritime fulcrum between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
In that vein, he defended his administration’s controversial ‘sink the vessels’ policy, which is designed to counter illegal fishing If Indonesia had not done so, Jokowi argued, within six to seven years the fish, coral and broader maritime ecosystem would have otherwise been destroyed (See: “Explaining Indonesia’s ‘Sink the Vessels’ Policy Under Jokowi”).
“We will also continue our zero tolerance policy against illegal fishing,” he said.
Beyond the Asia-Pacific, Jokowi stressed that Indonesia was also prepared to fulfill its international obligations in line with the country’s constitution. On the environment, he said Indonesia prioritized protecting its oceans and forests and was committed to working with other parties to make the next round of international climate negotiations a success.
“You shall see a greater focus on the environment from my government,” he said. “We look forward to working with all the parties at the next COP 21 meeting in Paris”.
Addressing the “huge challenge” of the choking haze from raging forest fires back home (which forced him to cut short his U.S. visit), Jokowi reassured the audience that his government would work with regional partners to find solutions to the problem.
On the security side, he also repeated Indonesia’s desire to contribute 4,000 peacekeepers to the United Nations by 2019.
Turning to the question of the Indonesian economy, which has been growing at its slowest pace in nearly six years, Jokowi said that his administration was committed to economic reform and would pursue deregulation policies “with full commitment” and “for as long as it takes” (See: “What Does Indonesia’s Cabinet Reshuffle Mean?”).
“It will gain momentum and reach full speed in coming months,” he declared.
As an indication of Indonesia’s seriousness in reforming its economy, Jokowi reiterated that he had confirmed the country’s intention to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership during his summit meeting Monday with U.S. President Barack Obama, despite the difficulties therein (See: “Indonesia Wants to Join TPP: President Jokowi”).
“To be honest, I think President Obama was a little surprised,” he admitted.
Despite the significant challenges Indonesia faces, Jokowi said that Indonesia had two powerful assets at its disposal to manage them – Islam and democracy. The country’s model, he said, has something to offer the world when diverse refugees are flowing into Europe and the United States.
“Indonesia offers a successful model that shows that Islam is compatible not only with democracy but also with modernity,” Jokowi suggested.
Indonesia, Jokowi reminded the audience, is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and its third largest democracy. Emphasizing the significance of his meteoric rise and election as Indonesia’s first president from outside the Jakarta elite, Jokowi, a former furniture exporter, said his story would not have been possible without the Indonesian people.
“Without democracy, there is no President Widodo,” he said before jokingly urging the audience to tweet that comment.