Indonesia has long been regarded as primus inter pares in Southeast Asia based on its territorial size, large population, historical role as founding member of ASEAN, and, most importantly its aspiration to regional leadership. Policymakers and scholars alike have repeatedly described ASEAN as the cornerstone of the country’s foreign policy and ASEAN centrality as its long-standing foreign policy paradigm.
Since Indonesia’s new president, Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, came to power in late 2014, however, some have detected that the country may be “turning away” from ASEAN. A new narrative about Indonesia’s role in ASEAN has apparently emerged in Jakarta, one that gives priority to Indonesia’s national interests over ASEAN centrality. This sparked fears within the region and beyond over Indonesia disavowing ASEAN under Jokowi. Some observers even regarded Jokowi’s national interest-driven foreign policy as marking a sharp break with the “thousand friends, zero enemies” foreign policy paradigm established under his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
To be sure, there are certainly aspects of Jokowi’s foreign policy which, at least at first glance, support such a critical assessment. Differing markedly from his predecessors, Jokowi gave orders to sink fishing vessels, mostly from other ASEAN member states, caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. Furthermore, one of his close foreign policy advisors bluntly argued that ASEAN was not “the” cornerstone of Indonesian foreign policy anymore but merely “a” cornerstone.
With regard to the ASEAN Economic Community, Jokowi stated that he would only support regional integration measures if they did not run counter to Indonesia’s national interests while at the same time displaying apprehension over the prospect of Indonesia becoming a mere playground for incoming foreign businesses. To protect local products and businesses, a slew of new tariff and non-tariff trade barriers were introduced. And in July 2015 import tariffs for a large number of consumer goods – ranging from food to automobile parts – were raised. Under Jokowi Indonesia also launched a number of new domestic content requirement regulations. These developments have been interpreted as signs of an increasingly inward-looking Indonesian foreign policy, which in turn has the country abandon its traditional leadership role in ASEAN.
These recent developments notwithstanding, I would argue that framing Indonesian foreign policy toward ASEAN in a binary either-or manner glosses over Indonesia’s long-standing ambiguity toward regional integration. Indonesia’s main interests and priorities vis-à-vis ASEAN in general, and regional integration in particular, have always been in the area of security and defense. And concurrently there are few, if any, indicators of Indonesia turning away from ASEAN under Jokowi in the area of regional security.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi have repeatedly referred to ASEAN as the most important instrument to foster regional security and stability. ASEAN is still viewed by Jakarta as being at the center of the regional security architecture. In line with this, Jakarta continues to support efforts to forge a unified ASEAN position on the South China Sea conflict. Very much like her predecessor, Marsudi has urged the conflicting parties to conclude a legally binding code of conduct for the South China Sea, which Indonesia continues to view as the key tool to manage tensions there.
Other examples whereby the Jokowi administration also acted by and large in accordance with the long-held ASEAN centrality paradigm include the migration crisis involving the Rohingyas and the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In both examples, the Jokowi administration pushed for more and closer regional cooperation in ASEAN. Moreover, a few months after Jokowi took office Indonesia, after year-long delays, finally ratified the ASEAN transboundary haze agreement. While this did not prevent the outbreak of large forest fires in late 2015 and early 2016, it was nonetheless described as a historic step toward a regional solution to the haze by Indonesia’s neighbors.
Those arguing that Indonesia’s role in ASEAN is currently undergoing rapid changes tend to overlook Indonesia’s long-standing ambiguity toward regional integration. With regard to the ASEAN community’s second pillar, the ASEAN Economic Community, Indonesia’s self-portrayal as a driver of regional integration processes has never really mirrored its policy preferences or observable behavior. Indonesia’s stance on regional economic integration has predominantly been protectionist since the days of Suharto. Large parts of the country’s elite – past and present – have been apprehensive toward more regional economic integration over fears that this would compromise Indonesia’s sovereignty and harm the interests of local businesses and workers.
To give but one example, the negative investment lists recently revised by Jokowi had previously seen considerable expansion under his predecessor SBY. In general, various integration measures laid out in the AEC blueprint have only been partially attended to by Jakarta, whereas others have been met with outright neglect. Thus, Jakarta has long been considered to be a foot-dragger in ASEAN when it comes to economic integration. On the other hand, the country has displayed regional leadership in other policy fields such as conflict management, counter terrorism cooperation, or disaster management. Especially in the area of regional security and defense there are few, if any, indicators of Indonesia turning away from ASEAN under Jokowi. Hence if one moves beyond the often unemotional, matter-of-fact rhetoric on ASEAN, Jokowi’s ASEAN policy appears to be no more or less ambivalent toward regional integration than that of his predecessors.
What should worry observers of Indonesian foreign policy, however, is the Jokowi administration’s unwillingness to develop ideas as well as set the agenda on the future development of the ASEAN Community from 2016 on. While Indonesia’s foreign ministry played a central role in the preparation of the Bali Summit 2003, during which the ASEAN member states decided to deepen regional integration in order to transform ASEAN into the ASEAN Community by the end of 2015, Indonesia currently displays little to no such foreign policy activism.
At the heart of the Jokowi administration’s foreign policy is the idea of Indonesia as a “maritime fulcrum.” It is aimed at rapidly developing the maritime resources and maritime connectivity of the archipelagic state as well as at cooperating more closely with Indonesia’s littoral states in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. This seems to have come at the expense of crafting a vision of the direction of ASEAN’s mid- and long-term development as well as of Indonesian regional leadership.
To conclude, worries that Indonesia under Jokowi is conducting a foreign policy U-turn away from ASEAN appear to be somewhat overblown. There are few indicators that Jakarta is abandoning its ASEAN-centric approach to regional security. The same can be said for a number of other policy fields such as disaster management or human rights. At the same time, attempts at the regional level to facilitate greater economic integration have been met with tacit (and at times open) apprehension by Jakarta. The latter, however, is by no means an exclusive peculiarity of the Jokowi administration. What does indeed set the current administration apart from its predecessor, however, is its failure to develop ideas on the future development of the ASEAN Community and aspire to regional leadership. On this count, Indonesia under Jokowi seems to have, at least for the time being, turned away from ASEAN.
Felix Heiduk is a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.