Earlier this month, the United Kingdom published its “Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy,” a document describing the government’s vision for Britain’s role against the backdrop of evolving global challenges. In the review, the British government set out its overarching national security and international policy objectives to 2025, under the rubric of what it describes as “Global Britain.”
Out of many priorities of the U.K.’s foreign policy, the government acknowledged that the world’s geopolitical and economic center of gravity is moving eastward toward the Indo-Pacific, a region that therefore warrants a special section in the Integrated Review. Some notable recommendations contained in the review are that London push for new trade agreements with key regional powers, including with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and build Britain’s “soft power” diplomacy through its overseas development assistance.
Since the U.K. officially departed the European Union, new dynamics have been apparent in some of its bilateral relationships. However, in its relations with Indonesia, the areas of interests and cooperation are unlikely to be significantly different to the pre-Brexit era. For instance, Indonesia’s top diplomat Retno Marsudi stated that the main priorities of the Indonesia-U.K. relationship would remain much as they were before, and the two nations recently convened a series of high-level meetings to sketch out the future trajectory of cooperation. Indonesia and the U.K. have managed traditional cooperation in some areas, such as education, trade and business, environment, and development. The relationship now faces the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and Britain’s updated “global” foreign policy strategy. So, how should the bilateral cooperation move forward?
According to U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, as Asia grows in importance, “Global Britain” will seek to help strengthen the cooperation with like-minded countries across the Indo-Pacific region. Leaving the EU should be regarded as an opportunity, he said, particularly to fulfil the U.K.’s wider geopolitical and security interests, while strengthening its economic ties with Southeast Asia. In January, the U.K. become an ASEAN Dialogue Partner, despite the moratorium on new dialogue partnerships that has been in place since 1999, with which it hopes to enhance its practical cooperation with the regional bloc on various policy issues. With the presence of a U.K. mission to ASEAN, Britain should leverage its engagement with Southeast Asian countries via the soft power potential of its development assistance.
For the British government, Indonesia is particularly important due to its strategic position in Southeast Asia and as one of the fastest growing economies in the region, which the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates will grow into the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2050. Therefore, it makes sense that the U.K. is targeting Indonesia as one of the first countries with which it plans to deepen engagement through its post-Brexit “Global Britain” strategy.
The visit of Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to the U.K. last October emphasized some reciprocal strategic interests between the two countries: first, the visit secured a supply of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine for Indonesia; second, Indonesia supported the U.K.’s bid to become an ASEAN Dialogue Partner; and third, it continued strong engagement on global challenges such as human rights, democracy, regional security, and climate change.
The following month, the two countries completed the latest phase of their Joint Trade Review, an instrument designed to navigate the future bilateral trade cooperation, which Indonesia has emphasized as a crucial step in the strengthening of its economic diplomacy in Europe. This is particularly pressing considering that the U.K. is not among Indonesia’s top 10 trading partners and the volume of exports has actually been decreasing over the past five years. The most hotly-debated issue is on the question of palm oil and timber environmental standards, in which Indonesian negotiations aimed at lowering such standards will create controversies and possibly damage the U.K.’s global reputation.
To reinvigorate the relationship between Indonesia and the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson should also prioritize more personal engagement with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Given the peculiarities of Indonesia’s presidential system, wherein foreign policy is largely set at the executive level, particularly by the president, Jokowi’s standpoint and perspective are consequential in the advancement of relations with the U.K., and the Indonesian leader’s close ties with other foreign leaders have helped smooth the enhancement of bilateral cooperation.
Indonesia’s foreign policy today is predominantly influenced by the nature of Jokowi’s leadership, which is fundamentally pragmatic and based on cost-benefit calculations. Evan Laksmana suggests that Indonesia’s foreign policy under Jokowi can be described as one of “pragmatic equidistance,” valuing the primacy of domestic interests (economic development) and characterized by an ambiguity that sees foreign partners as both strategic partners and potential threats. Jokowi’s main priority, the development of Indonesia’s economy, manifests in Indonesia’s foreign policy via the “economic diplomacy” that sits at the forefront of its diplomatic engagement. This means that more leader-to-leader meetings are required to strengthen the bond between the two states, especially to review and upgrade economic ties.
Seen through a geopolitical lens, the U.K. will become an additional external power that might seek to influence ASEAN’s ability to navigate the increasingly acrimonious relationship between China and the United States. In its relations with Indonesia, the U.K. should be careful in seeking to proactively influence Jakarta’s views toward Beijing. At the moment, Indonesia has a robust engagement with China, which Jokowi views as important to the fulfillment of his domestic economic agenda, and therefore using the same approach of the Trump administration, which attempted to influence Indonesia’s China policy, should be avoided. In the future stronger ties with Indonesia, U.K. officials must not mistake the possible contours of cooperation with Indonesia by challenging the traditional “free and active” basis of Indonesia’s foreign policy.
In sum, the U.K. instead should work together with Indonesia to boost its security, defense, and political capabilities against the dynamic and increasing tensions and threats in the region, as it has done with other existing strategic partners like Japan and South Korea. The future remains uncertain, yet the only certainty is that increasing the engagement of both countries will require pragmatic and careful calculation of the part of policymakers on both sides.