ASEAN Beat

Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific Approach: Between Promises and Perils

A high-level dialogue next week will once again spotlight the opportunities and challenges inherent in Jakarta’s regional vision.

Prashanth Parameswaran
Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific Approach: Between Promises and Perils
Credit: Flickr/Eduardo M.C.

Next week, Indonesia is set to hold what officials have characterized as a high-level Indo-Pacific dialogue in Jakarta. Beyond the engagement itself, which is set to feature Southeast Asian states as well as major powers including the United States, the development will spotlight the broader question of Indonesia’s own approach to the Indo-Pacific within its wider foreign policy and amid a series of domestic, regional, and global developments.

As I have noted before in these pages and elsewhere, despite the heightened focus on the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy since its unveiling, FOIP has also catalyzed a series of reactions from regional states, some of whom have advanced their own Indo-Pacific concepts before and have reinforced their efforts to develop them.

Among these is Indonesia, and that should come as no surprise. Southeast Asia lies right at the center of the convergence between the Indian and the Pacific oceans, and Indonesia’s heft within the subregion suggests that Jakarta would want to have a say in how the wider region develops. Indonesia has also long seen itself as a regional leader on geopolitical issues, and while there have at times been gaps between its lofty aspirations and sober realities, it has unquestionably played an important and at times underappreciated role in the development of the regional architecture in Southeast Asia, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Though one can trace Indonesia’s approach to the Indo-Pacific back much further depending on how it is defined, in a contemporary sense, Jakarta’s vision could be said to begin to cohere during the tenure of former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Under Yudhoyono, years before FOIP was unveiled, Indonesia had suggested an Indo-Pacific vision around the East Asia Summit (EAS) – a body which is in and of itself a testament to ASEAN’s own “Indo-Pacificization” over time to include the greater engagement of major powers. At the time, then-Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa even publicly raised the prospect of an Indo-Pacific Friendship and Cooperation Treaty, though the approach never got off the ground.

Though Indonesian foreign policy under current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has been much more domestic-focused relative to the Yudhoyono years and an explicit Indo-Pacific concept had not been formally articulated at the outset, Indonesia’s approach to the world had in fact continued to advance individual aspects of what may be considered an Indo-Pacific approach. To take just one example, even at the beginning of Jokowi’s presidency in late 2014, foreign policy adviser Rizal Sukma had explicitly linked the global maritime fulcrum (GMF) concept to a connection between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans (or what he termed “PACINDO”), with differences struck between the Indo-Pacific approach under the Yudhoyono administration on various counts, including geographical scope (with a greater focus on India and the Gulf countries).

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But while Indonesian officials may have a point when they emphasize that Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific conception had its genesis before FOIP was disclosed, it is also true that FOIP’s release has further intensified Jakarta’s quest to advance this concept and shape the regional conversation. This is due to a range of factors, some of them more historic, such as Indonesia’s role as a regional leader and its traditional suspicion of external powers dominating the regional agenda, and others more contemporary like growing nervousness about rising U.S.-China strategic competition and also concerns about aspects of government policy in both Washington and Beijing that run contrary to Jakarta’s interests, whether it be on the Israel-Palestine issue or on the South China Sea. Some of Jakarta’s concerns are also shared by neighboring Southeast Asian states to varying degrees, even though they may not have the same weight and willingness to express those views.

In response, we have seen Indonesia articulate its Indo-Pacific approach more clearly and also undertake a series of actions to support this vision on a regional basis. In terms of rhetoric, Indonesian officials, including Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, have repeatedly emphasized the principles of Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific concept as a means to both address Jakarta’s concerns and distinguish it from those of others, includinginclusiveness (to not leave others, including China, out) as well as ASEAN centrality (to ensure the organization is helping drive regional conversations rather than major powers drowning it out). Turning to actions, Indonesia has also been active in convening meetings and in speaking out within them about the Indo-Pacific concept, including a Track 1.5 workshop on ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific last March.

That has continued into 2019 as well. Even heading into the new year, Marsudi and other officials made clear that they would include advancing the Indo-Pacific concept on the long list of Indonesian foreign policy priorities for the year, which include several agenda items tied to Indonesia’s role as the current holder of a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council. Indonesia has also been emphasizing the alignment of its advancement of the concept with ASEAN, with Marsudi raising the issue as part of her meetings with Thai counterparts during Thailand’s ASEAN chairmanship this year and Jakarta looking to continue to see the issue discussed in various ASEAN-led fora.

Indonesia’s continued advancement of the Indo-Pacific approach is not without promise. At the very least, Indonesia is serving as an important voice to remind both Beijing and Washington that countries in the region have a say in the region’s future – a basic point that is nonetheless at times inadequately appreciated in more exclusively bipolar conceptions of Asia. Additionally, Jakarta’s continued articulation of the concept both within and beyond ASEAN channels can also help intensify discussions within Southeast Asia about what the subregion’s role ought to be in the development of the Indo-Pacific concept given its continued de facto role as the center of Asian regionalism. As legitimate as some Southeast Asian concerns may be about some conceptions of the Indo-Pacific, the reality is that if Southeast Asia and ASEAN do not help actively shape it in a comprehensive, actionable way, then the subregion will simply be shaped by it in ways that external powers would prefer.

But advancing an ASEAN-centered vision also has not been without its challenges. For one, at a regional level, beyond meetings and general principles, the unwillingness or inability of other Southeast Asian states to seriously devote attention to shaping a subregional vision of the Indo-Pacific concept makes it more difficult for Indonesia to align its own approach with that of other countries in the subregion, contributing to a sense that Jakarta is more of a lone voice rather than a regional representative. The wider global environment is also arguably more difficult to advance this concept relative to the Yudhoyono years, given intensifying major power competition and the unveiling of the Trump administration’s own FOIP, which has triggered newfound concerns about the concept and what it means. The domestic context for foreign policymaking is also different under Jokowi, and, no different from the experience of other Indo-Pacific countries, having a president who has continued to evince very little personal interest in foreign policy relative to Yudhoyono is far from ideal for Indonesian policymakers as it can limit the traction a particular initiative can have.

Of course, those challenges are not insurmountable, and the current context could also evolve as well, starting with Indonesia’s own general election next month. But as we see more individual manifestations of Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific approach, including the high-level dialogue Jakarta hosts next week, it is important to keep them in perspective. They ought to be viewed more as part of Jakarta’s emerging approach to the concept rather than a dramatic new development in and of itself, despite what the headlines may suggest. And they should not detract from the broader reality that the future prospects of Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific approach will be contingent less on the specific actions that Jakarta takes, and more on how it navigates the more general range of opportunities and challenges to maximize its promises and minimize its perils.