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Is Jokowi’s focus on domestic issues instead of foreign policy hurting Indonesia?

Five years ago, the newly elected Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said that Indonesian diplomacy needed to “yield more benefits for the common people at home”.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo's foreign policy orientation remains both economic and domestic, writes the author.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo's foreign policy orientation remains both economic and domestic, writes the author.

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Five years ago, the newly elected Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said that Indonesian diplomacy needed to “yield more benefits for the common people at home”.

To do this, he said that he would prioritise “economic diplomacy”.  

Little has changed since then. Earlier this month, Mr Widodo was in Canberra for a state visit following the ratification of a free trade agreement between the two countries which he described as a  “gift” to Australia.

But is the president’s apparently selective focus on economic diplomacy for Indonesia viable, especially when not much is done to boost the country’s soft power?

In international relations, soft power is often defined as a country’s ability to co-opt rather than coerce others into a certain outcome. Joseph Nye, the political scientist who coined the term, listed three sources for a country’s soft power: Its culture, political values and foreign policies.

The state of relations between Indonesia and Australia is a good illustration that increased trade links may not necessarily lead to a greater profile for Indonesia in Australia when its soft power is weak.

During Mr Widodo’s visit, both governments gushed about “common values of democracy, pluralism and tolerance” and “shared links in areas such as education and research collaboration”.

In real terms, the rapport between the two countries is tenuous at best.

There are a number of indicators, one of which is the sharp decline in the number of Australian students learning the Indonesian language, which is currently at an all-time low. 

More students were taking Indonesian as a school subject in the 1970s than they are today.

Although Indonesia is Australia’s nearest Asian neighbour, far more Australian students choose to learn Japanese than Indonesian. Japan’s considerable soft power, consistently ranked in the top 10 globally for years, may be a decisive factor here.

The Australia-Indonesia Perceptions Report in 2016 found that only 13 per cent of Australian respondents thought Indonesia was a “trustworthy” country, with only 15 per cent viewing Indonesia as an “inclusive” society and only 18 per cent believed Indonesia is “progressive”. 

It is worth noting that the survey was conducted a year after two of the Australian “Bali Nine” were executed in Indonesia, following Mr Widodo’s vow to “get tough” with drug traffickers, which created an outrage in Australia where the death penalty had been abolished.

Australia’s own relations with China, its largest trading partner, offer us valuable lessons. No global soft power index for the past decade has put China in the top 10, something that Beijing has long recognised. In 2014, President Xi Jingping spoke of the need to “increase China’s soft power”.

China currently has an image problem as well in Australia. According to a survey by the Lowy Institute last year, 74 per cent of Australians believed their country was “too economically dependent on China”. Thirty two per cent did not believe China would act responsibly, a dramatic dip from 47 per cent in 2008.  

The revelations of attempts by Chinese state actors to infiltrate Australian intelligence ─ exemplified by the espionage scandal involving former Australian Security Intelligence Organisation official Roger Uren and his wife Sheri Yan ─ and other forms of interference in both the country’s democratic process and its academic institutions in recent years have also done much to dent China’s image.

Forty nine per cent of Australians see such activities as a security threat.

By contrast, the United States, Australia’s third largest trading partner, wields far greater soft power. The same survey by the Lowy Institute found that more than 70 per cent believed Australia’s alliance with the US was crucial to the country’s security.

While it is understandable that English-speaking countries like the US and the United Kingdom are bound to exert greater soft power in Australia than, say, China or Indonesia, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that cultural affinities count more than trade links in developing trust between countries.

Soft power tends to grow better with emotional attachment and sentiments rather than the nitty gritty of trade.

Nevertheless, it would appear that Mr Widodo’s foreign policy orientation remains both economic and domestic. A highlight of his recent visit to Canberra was his seemingly sincere interest in the Australian capital city’s historical origins and planning. This may be the first time the president has had a genuine interest in something Australian.

The president’s interest was, once again, domestic. He has embarked on a colossal project to build a new capital city from scratch in East Kalimantan. Possible Australian collaboration in the project was also included in the joint statement during his visit.

The overwhelming focus in Indonesia’s international diplomacy on promoting trade and meeting domestic priorities means that it can easily overlook the importance of cultivating soft power.

Take for instance the act of lending help to a neighbour in times of natural disasters.

As Australian bushfires ravaged through the eastern states earlier this year, help poured in from friendly countries. Firefighters from the US and Canada flew in to assist their Australian counterparts, three Americans even lost their lives in the crash of a fire-fighting aircraft. In early January, Singapore deployed two helicopters and 42 soldiers to help with the fire relief efforts.

Yet Indonesia initially only managed to “convey condolences and deepest sympathies” and would “offer help if asked”, according to a rather sterile announcement from the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It was not until Feb 2 that 40 members of the Indonesian military and the disaster management agency were dispatched to Australia to help fight the fires, which had, by this stage, largely dissipated due to increased rainfall.

It was also difficult not to note the timing of their arrival, just over a week before Mr Widodo himself was due in Canberra.

Unlike his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Mr Widodo has proved himself to be largely uninterested in foreign policy.

As a result, no major foreign policy initiative has been taken under his administration, except for the increase in Indonesia’s focus on and financial aid towards small Pacific island countries. 

This has the express aim of dissuading them from supporting West Papuan secession from Indonesia, another domestic concern.

The great irony in Indonesia’s cavalier attitude towards cultivating its soft power through diplomacy is that hefty soft power could go hand in hand with attracting investment and visitors to the country, something that Mr Widodo clearly wants for Indonesia.

The question remains whether Jakarta can devise a far-sighted and effective foreign policy to help augment rather than diminish Indonesia’s soft power.



Johannes Nugroho is a writer and political analyst from Surabaya whose commentaries have appeared in the Jakarta Post and Jakarta Globe since the 1990s. 

Related topics

Joko Widodo Jokowi Indonesia

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