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Indonesia’s leadership transition: Will Jakarta’s foreign policy change?

Indonesia will undergo a significant transformation this year, as the country will hold national elections to choose new legislators at both the national and regional levels, as well as elect a new President to succeed Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has been in power since 2004.

Indonesia will undergo a significant transformation this year, as the country will hold national elections to choose new legislators at both the national and regional levels, as well as elect a new President to succeed Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has been in power since 2004.

As President, Dr Yudhoyono has been lauded for reviving activism in Indonesia’s foreign policy after years of difficulty following the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the fall of former President Suharto. Will the coming leadership transition result in a drastic change in Indonesia’s foreign policy?


Some analysts of Indonesia’s foreign policy have been worried that the new President might be inward-looking and more interested in pursuing a nationalistic agenda. This prediction is somewhat exaggerated. While the new President might be more nationalistic, he or she would be unlikely to change radically the country’s foreign policy direction. There are three reasons for this.

First of all, as in the case of domestic politics, foreign policy issues involve a broad range of domestic aspirations, from a more protectionist trade policy to human rights and democracy promotion; from a more active stance in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to one that is more globally oriented. The new President, like the incumbent, would probably choose the middle ground by continuing Indonesia’s current diplomacy. He or she would not conduct an extreme foreign policy makeover and would prefer to satisfy demands from diverse foreign policy interests inside the country.

Secondly, Indonesia does not urgently need to pursue an aggressive foreign policy, which requires energy and resources. Jakarta has been criticised for not taking a proactive leadership role in ASEAN during difficult times. For instance, Indonesia did not take a firm stand against China over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea — until after ASEAN Foreign Ministers were in disarray over the issue following their annual meeting in Cambodia in 2012.

Nonetheless, this position is understandable because adopting an aggressive policy towards China would not only incur economic costs with Beijing but would also require a huge effort to rival China’s dominant economic influence with some ASEAN members such as Cambodia and Laos, something that Indonesia currently lacks.

Thirdly, the new President would not become an inward-looking President because he/she would be driven by domestic aspiration to see Indonesia play a constructive role in world politics. Indonesians have become increasingly more mature and rational in responding to international affairs because more of them have had international exposure. More government officials from various agencies, including at the regional level, and Parliament members have had more experience in networking from their involvement in international fora.

The private sector has also been intensifying its lobbying of the government for more participation in economic diplomacy. It is true that when there was political tension between Indonesia and its neighbours, such as with Malaysia over Indonesian migrant workers, some protests had occurred in front of the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta. Nonetheless, nationalist rhetoric of a few groups does not necessarily reflect real public interest and concern. The public, in general, prefers to see increasing mutual trade, cultural exchanges and people-to-people relations, despite some difficulty in bilateral relations.


The next President will probably try to play a more active and innovative role in global affairs, but this will not be accomplished by exercising an obsolete “Konfrontasi” spirit. There have been indications to support this prediction. Some presidential candidates have tried to convey to both domestic constituents and foreign observers that they are able to manage foreign relations well.

Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, whom surveys have indicated as the front runner for the presidency, initiated the first meeting between the Governors and Mayors of ASEAN’s capital cities a few months ago — a signal that he aims to promote the growth of a South-east Asian community. Former Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, who is running for nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, has been portrayed as a capable negotiator in difficult meetings during the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference last December.

Previously, Golkar Party Chairman Aburizal Bakrie toured Australia, Malaysia and Thailand to meet leaders of the ruling parties in those countries, apparently to raise his profile as a strong internationalist. Even Mr Prabowo Subianto, who has often advocated more protectionist and nationalistic policies, was declared by his brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo to be a supporter of foreign investment.


While there will probably be no substantial and ideological change in Indonesia’s foreign policy under the new leadership after this year’s elections, the next President will need to deal with both regional and global developments, which would influence the country’s strategic choices.

In South-east Asia, despite progress towards ASEAN Community 2015, some countries in the region have been facing the threat of domestic instability. The political stalemate in Thailand, unresolved protests in Phnom Penh and other internal tensions could weaken enthusiasm for regional integration.

In the broader region, there have been tendencies towards conservatism and self-serving nationalistic agendas, seen in the growing tension between China and Japan over contested islands and the controversial “stop the boats” policy in Australia.

Amid an uncertain and unpredictable regional and global situation, Indonesia will try to refocus its foreign policy. It will probably reduce its diplomatic weight from traditional yet increasingly less effective organisations such as the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation — two groups that Indonesia had participated actively in between the 1960s and 1990s.

ASEAN would still be important for Indonesia, but Jakarta might seek to diversify its foreign policy orientation as a consequence of its self-perceived status as an emerging middle power.

For example, Indonesia, together with Mexico, Korea, Turkey and Australia, last year formed an informal consultative group dubbed MIKTA. It is too early to predict whether MIKTA could have significant influence in world politics, especially within the Group of Twenty, but its member countries have started to meet regularly at the working group level.

As shown by its move on MIKTA, Indonesia would this year and beyond creatively initiate or join informal groupings, which is a new phenomenon in world politics.

For any future Indonesian President, joining the club of middle and emerging powers across different regions would not be entirely aimed at influencing global governance.

More importantly, it would have a domestic goal.

If the new leader intensifies efforts to raise Indonesia’s image as an emerging power, he or she would be regarded by constituents at home as a competent leader of this big and complex nation.


Awidya Santikajaya is a PhD candidate at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, Australian National University.

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