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8 July 2013

Joshua Kurlantzick Talks Indonesian Foreign Policy

Joshua Kurlantzick, courtesy of CFR
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Joshua Kurlantzick

Indonesia's foreign policy priorities include strategically balancing in its relationships with China and the US, and also raising its international profile by working through ASEAN. In today's Questions and Answers feature, Josh Kurlantzick discusses Jakarta's current foreign policy agenda and how it might change if Joko Widodo prevails in the 2014 presidential election, as is widely expected.

By Joshua Kurlantzick for ISN

It has been suggested that Indonesia does not have a discernible grand strategy. What do you make of this suggestion?

I don't think Indonesia really has a discernible grand strategy (if you are talking about a grand global strategy), other than raising the country’ international profile. This entails making sure that Jakarta is increasingly involved in international institutions as they expand to include the largest global economies and emerging powers, most notably the G-20. I think Indonesia does have a broad regional strategic outlook, particularly towards ASEAN.

One of the main objectives of Indonesia's foreign policy outlook is to balance its relations between China and the United States. How is this impacting upon Jakarta's relations with fellow ASEAN states?

I think that it is putting Indonesia in a difficult situation at the current time. Several fellow member-states, such as Singapore and Vietnam and the Philippines, are clearly tilting more closely towards the United States. They are also engaging in almost as confrontational behavior in the South China Sea as Beijing. This, in turn, puts Washington in a difficult position to act as the primary guarantor of security across the South China Sea region.

Indonesia would most certainly like to maintain its strategic balance between the United States and China. However, as the most powerful nation in ASEAN, Jakarta also does not want to see the organization devalued either on the regional or global stage. Accordingly, Indonesia needs to stand in line with its fellow member-states over the South China Sea dispute in order to show that ASEAN is a strong organization. This is despite Indonesia not having the same vested interests in the South China Sea as certain other ASEAN states.

In this respect, is Indonesia ideally placed to act as a mediator over the SCS disputes?

I think Indonesia is in a good place to act as a mediator, but remember, China has so far refused any type of mediation under a multilateral aegis. So perhaps no one is ideally suited to breaking the impasse, not even Indonesia.

Which sections of Indonesian society exercise the most influence over the development of the country’s foreign policy agenda?

Despite the decentralization of political and economic power to the provincial and sub-provincial levels, I think that Indonesia’s regional and ASEAN strategies are still being dictated by a small handful of opinion leaders in Jakarta. These undoubtedly include the President's office, a few think-tanks like CSIS Indonesia, leading media elites, and senior figures in the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), Indonesia’s armed forces.

Presidential elections are scheduled in Indonesia for next year. Do you think any of the potential candidates offer a change of direction in Indonesian foreign policy that may, in turn, result in something resembling a coherent grand strategy?

It’s difficult to say. If Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, the governor of Jakarta, runs he will almost certainly do so on an entirely domestic platform. His personal reputation as a clean politician and a break from previous Indonesian leaders is also likely to be an important factor. Widodo has almost no enunciated foreign policy - remember he has only been Jakarta governor a short while - and I think he would not even talk much about foreign policy on the campaign trail, as it's not his strength. Yet he is the obvious and overwhelming front-runner at this point, and right now I would expect him to be the next president. However, if he is elected it might allow more technocrats in the government to develop foreign policy, which could be a good thing.

Are there other potential candidates who have a better grasp of foreign policy standing in this election?

The Chairman of the Golkar Party, Aburizal Bakrie – among many others - has a better grasp of foreign policy. The same can also be said of Prabowo Subianto, who was previously married to former President Suharto’s daughter. But right now it doesn't look like they are going to win, since they are too linked to the old era of Indonesian politicians. I also think that it is highly unlikely that the Democrats will win in 2014, regardless of the fact that they have yet to announce a candidate. Basically, next year’s election is “Jokowi’s” to lose. However, he is a very savvy politician, despite exterior appearances.


Joshua Kurlantzick is Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and author of the book Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government.

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