While official results are not expected for a few weeks, initial results from Indonesia’s elections last week suggest that Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will likely be re-elected for a second five-year term. Though it is still early days and much more will become clearer in the months that follow, it is worth thinking about what Indonesian foreign policy might look like under Jokowi’s second term, given Indonesia’s role as an important actor in Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region as well as the concerns at play in this regard during his first term in office.
As I have noted previously, since Indonesia’s independence, it has sought to play what its former Vice President Mohammad Hatta called a “free and active” (bebas-aktif) role in world affairs. There have been various manifestations of this over the decades amid a mix of continuity and change, from Indonesia’s role in hosting the historic Bandung Conference in 1955, which led to the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement, to its role as primus inter pares within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Under former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s tenure from 2004 to 2014, there were clear efforts made for Indonesia to move beyond its traditional “free and active” foreign policy to adopt more ambitious aspirations regionally and globally.
Indonesian foreign policy in Jokowi’s first term had not been as active as that under Yudhoyono in an overall sense. Still, there were also clearly some lines of effort that received a greater emphasis during that period relative to others. For instance, while Indonesia’s leadership within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) received much less of a focus, there was an effort to develop other aspects of foreign policy including defending Indonesia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and developing the country as a so-called global maritime fulcrum (GMF) between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Thinking about how Indonesian foreign policy might play out in Jokowi’s second term, it is easy and tempting to make the case for general continuity. For instance, Jokowi’s tendencies, including his relative lack of interest in foreign affairs and his emphasis on people-centric outcomes, suggest that some version of a domestic-focused foreign policy that puts Indonesia’s interests first is likely to remain in his second term. The fact that many of the key items in his domestic agenda remain unfinished also reinforces the reality that Indonesia will continue to be consumed at home to a large extent even as it engages abroad to some degree. Yudhoyono’s tenure also serves as a bit of a warning in this regard — despite indications that he would be liberated to pursue more reformist and progressive policies in his second term, that proved not to be the case.
But one ought not to dismiss the case for some degree of change as well. For one, changes in the composition of Jokowi’s cabinet could result in renewed energy by some ministries in aspects of foreign affairs, including diplomacy, economics, and defense. This could add more heft to some of Indonesia’s current and future foreign policy commitments, including its role as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a two-year appointment that began this year. For another, as Jokowi seeks to cement his overall legacy and is freed from a looming re-election, we could see efforts to at the very least clearly articulate and defend a coherent domestic-focused foreign policy vision that seeks to tie Indonesia’s role in the world with some of Jokowi’s unfinished domestic policy items, such as making inroads on economic reform, strengthening maritime connectivity, and building up the country’s defense industry.
Additionally, observers should remember that beyond what Jokowi and his government might have in mind for Indonesia’s role abroad, outside forces will also shape how Indonesian foreign policy manifests itself and could result in some changes along the way. Trend-wise, some of the developments already visible toward the end of Jokowi’s first term, including ASEAN’s limitations and growing U.S.-China rivalry, show few signs of ebbing anytime soon and are likely to continue to reinforce the need for Indonesian leadership in the Indo-Pacific region – including the formulation of an ASEAN response to these trends – irrespective of what an administration may prefer. Beyond these trends, foreign policy crises and hotspots can also catalyze reactions by Jakarta that can affect the conduct of its role abroad – as we have already seen with the Rohingya crisis and the emphasis on the treatment of Uyghurs in China – even if these aspects of foreign policy are not neatly articulated as a coherent strategic vision.
Finally, one should also keep in mind that despite the focus on the headline-grabbing actions Jokowi himself and high-level officials may or may not undertake in foreign policy, in a vibrant democracy such as Indonesia, in Jokowi’s second term as with his first, there may be other foreign policy-related developments that could take place with a lesser degree of visibility, at lower levels, and involving a wider range of actors. A case in point in Jokowi’s first term was the evolution of the Bali Democracy Forum (BDF), an institution that Indonesia initiated to foster ongoing conversations about democracy and human rights in the region. Despite concerns about Jokowi’s sketchy attendance record at the BDF, the forum itself continues to hold future promise despite the challenges that remain, with efforts being made to expand it into other regions including through the establishment of new chapters to facilitate a more global conversation about the advancement of democracy from a range of perspectives. The point here is not to understate the role of a president in the formulation of foreign policy, but merely to suggest that foreign policy initiatives can still take shape to a certain degree in a domestic context even under a president that does not take a keen interest in foreign affairs.
To be sure, it is still early days, and we will find out much more about the future of foreign policy in Jokowi’s second term as we get past a number of signposts, including new cabinet appointments and Indonesia’s participation in key regional and global meetings through 2019 and into 2020. As things begin to take shape, the question of the extent of continuity and change we will see in Jokowi’s foreign policy will continue to loom large.