Indonesia is arguably the least well-known big country in the world, punching far below its weight when it comes to foreign affairs. Now comes a golden opportunity to change that – a seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) due next year, or in 2018. The timing could not be more apt, coming right as the country has been forced to react to emerging global issues, including the rise of ISIS, and the South China Sea Crisis.
The question is this: How will President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo use this opportunity? To date, his international overtures have been focused more on increasing investment and trade than pushing for a meaningful foreign policy agenda. Even when Widodo has made strong statements – such as the 2015 Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung, where he called for the reform of the United Nations to better represent the Global South, there has been little meaningful follow through.
A seat on the UN’s most powerful body will give Indonesia its most influential platform to push for UN reform, and other foreign policy goals. However, if the past year and a half is any guide, this could be another lost opportunity for both Widodo and Southeast Asia’s largest nation.
A Complex History
Indonesia was not always such a international lightweight. After independence, under then-President Sukarno, the country was quite assertive. It dramatically withdrew from the UN for a year over then rival Malaysia receiving a UNSC seat, and was key in the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement, a bloc of countries not tied either side of the Cold War battle between the United States and the Soviet Union.
This ambition was short lived, as the fall of Sukarno and the beginning of the Suharto dictatorship in 1966, with U.S. support, pushed Indonesia firmly to the side of the West. Since then, the chief focus has been internal issues: natural resource development, and festering occupations and insurgencies in East Timor, Papua, and Aceh.
Democratic Indonesia emerged out of the worst financial crisis in the country’s history and was – justifiably in this case – also inwardly focused. This changed somewhat under Jokowi’s immediate predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, though SBY’s international jet-setting seemed, at times, more geared to building his own personal standing than that of his country. This seems even more apparent in his high profile post-presidential roles as Council Chair of the South Korea-based Global Green Growth Institute, and co-chair for the panel that helped develop the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Nowhere is this lack of engagement more clear than at the UN itself, where Indonesia has for years been among the leaders in voting abstentions in the General Assembly, even for universally popular resolutions, such as one in 2013 to restrict the arms trade, which perpetuates conflict and human suffering.
A Jokowi Doctrine?
This reluctance to take stands has not changed under Widodo, which perhaps ought not to have been such a surprise. Widodo was elected with almost no foreign policy experience, having served as mayor of Jakarta and Surakarta before ascending to the presidency. This shows through in his economics and infrastructure-focused administration, which uses foreign policy as a tool to address these domestic concerns.
“Indonesian international relations is focused on finding and increasing the number of foreign investors to invest in the administration plan of massive infrastructure build up,” said Dr. Yosef Djakababa, Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Jakarta. “The focus of Jokowi’s foreign policies are more to help in boosting economic growth and prosperity.”
In fact, this is the cornerstone of most of Widodo’s speeches abroad. Promoting Indonesia as a safe place to invest, and calling for more bilateral trade. Unfortunately, this has not always worked well.
“Sure, Jokowi has gone out and made a lot of good speeches, yet he’s returned home, and because ministers undercut him, but often because of himself, we see policies being made that deter foreign investment,” said Gregory Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
This ends up hurting the overarching goal. So while Widodo calls for more investment in Indonesia’s infrastructure, his National Development Planning Minister, Sofyan Djalil, angers one of the largest potential investors, Japan, by awarding a high-speed rail contact to rival China, only to have the project fall apart weeks later. Sometimes, the policies of the Indonesian government seem more focused on image rather than on actual results. For example, few international experts believe that executions are the solution to the country’s drug problem, or that destroying foreign boats will aid the maritime industry, yet both are popular trademarks of Widodo’s administration, at least among the Indonesian public, and both policies are harming Jakarta’s standing globally.
“Foreign policy under Jokowi is driven much more from the ministries,” said Poling. “This leads to a lot of different actions, a bit of confusion, and a loss of focus”
What they are doing is sending the wrong signal abroad. Thus, globally, Widodo is known more for the policies of his cabinet, such as Minister Susi Pudjiastuti’s “sink the vessels“ initiative, rather than for his own, cohesive international agenda. This can lead to chaos, such as the recent fishing dispute with China – another country Widodo was actively courting as a trade partner – leading to unwanted increased tensions between the two countries.
Will things change when Indonesia takes its long awaited UNSC seat? Besides the chance to address terrorism and the South China Sea crisis directly, a seat on the UNSC could also be the perfect place to bring up the topic of UN reform, one of Widodo’s few, strong, foreign policy statements. This includes expanding the UNSC beyond its permanent member cohort of World War II victors, and perhaps even including the world’s fourth largest country.
“If – and its a big if – reform of the Security Council is indeed happening, Indonesia must push their effort to take part in the reform, not only as a member of the new reformed security council but also [by getting] actively involved in the UNSC reform itself given Indonesia’s prominent position within Asean,” Djakababa told The Diplomat.
The largest country in Southeast Asia and the most populous Muslim nation in the world, Indonesia would seem a good fit a permanent UNSC spot, if expansion happens. But the lack of a diplomatic push for its own seat over the past decade means that it is behind several other countries.
“At the end of the day, the Japanese, Germans, Indians have been pushing hard on this for years, and Indonesians have not been a strong force,” said Poling. “I don’t see why we’d suddenly see movement on this.”
Among these nations, only India, due to its population and regional clout, has a clear-cut case to be ahead of Indonesia. This is a clear example of how Indonesia’s low-profile, quiet foreign policy over the past several decades has hurt its ability to be forceful now and take its place on the global stage.
Yet, this might not in fact be the point for Jakarta at all. The goal, it often seems, is the image of power, not power itself.
“They want the credibility and prestige that comes with a UNSC seat, much like they wanted a G20 seat, but that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden they are going to become a really proactive member,” Poling told The Diplomat. That power is often projected inwards, rather than outwards, much like how the anti-boat fishing policy is strongly supported – and promoted – within Indonesia, despite its negligible benefits.
A UNSC seat may be more of the same – a chance for prominence, but not for action. Poling expects more of the same – passivity, and abstentions, which will only push Widodo’s global standing down further.
“I suspect on…issues of sanctions, human rights questions, all the tough stuff that’s going to come up, you’ll probably see Indonesia continuing to abstain…which is only going to reflect poorly on Jokowi,” said Poling.
This is why, a year and a half into his presidency, and we still have little idea what Widodo’s foreign policy positions really are. There’s no better time than now to figure this out, and for the Indonesian leader to decide if he will be the president who finally returns Indonesia to global prominence. Judging from the last year and a half, that would require a major shift in direction.
Nithin Coca is a freelance writer and journalist who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries. Follow him on Twitter @excinit.