Indonesia has reason to be confident. Less than two decades after the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis ravaged the economy and provoked a social and political upheaval that ended President Suharto’s three-decade-long rule, Indonesia is a member of the G-20 and boasts the world’s 15th highest GDP.
Moreover, Indonesia’s mainly Muslim population is predominantly moderate, and the country has been able to overcome most of its internal security problems, including the secessionist movement in Aceh and various large-scale communal conflicts. East Timor’s independence in 2002 ended years of violent struggle.
But Indonesia still faces domestic challenges. For example, the country’s reputation as a model of Muslim moderation has recently been undermined by intolerance and violence against religious minorities. And, after eight years under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the country faces elections next year.
Nevertheless, Indonesian leaders’ primary concerns – and ambitions – lie in the country’s foreign relations. In particular, China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea have divided ASEAN member countries, forcing Indonesia to perform a difficult balancing act as it seeks to maintain stable relations with China while addressing the rift within the region.
Since achieving independence after World War II, Indonesia has pursued a “free and active” foreign policy, preferring to protect its own interests rather than align itself with more powerful countries. Indonesia’s activist approach, whereby it assumes a leadership role both in the region and globally, has been driven simultaneously by supply (domestic popular sentiment) and demand (the country’s international partners).
Two distinct foreign-policy legacies inform the Indonesian public’s expectations and the government’s choices. Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president after independence, adopted a confrontational stance, making Indonesia a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. But, while this “lighthouse” foreign-policy approach increased Indonesia’s international clout, it led to encirclement by hostile Western powers – and to bankruptcy.
Sukarno’s successor, Suharto, embraced a more pragmatic and low-profile foreign policy aimed at creating an environment in which Indonesia could develop economically. This included working toward regional stability in Southeast Asia, as well as nurturing relations with the United States, Japan, and key European countries, in order to gain access to external markets, foreign investment, and technical assistance. But, while Suharto’s approach supported economic progress, critics charged that it betrayed the spirit of the 1945 constitution, which calls for Indonesia to play an active role in fostering world peace.
Seeking to reconcile often-contradictory demands for idealism and pragmatism, Indonesia has once again adopted a more activist approach to foreign policy. But staying on course has not been easy. Although some analysts argue that Indonesia has outgrown ASEAN and should chart an independent
course, the government has remained firm: ASEAN will remain the cornerstone of its foreign policy.
That stance is driven less by a sense of insecurity than by confidence in “ASEAN centrality” – that is, its member states’ ability to shape the regional order and realize a common destiny on their own terms, without foreign meddling. Viewing ASEAN as indispensable for managing relations with major powers, Indonesian policymakers believe that the bloc should be ambitious about spreading its code of conduct, and that it should drive initiatives for creating a regional architecture in East Asia.
Given this, Indonesia’s opposition to the idea of an East Asian community – comprising ASEAN, China, Japan, and South Korea – was unsurprising. Instead, it backed the more inclusive East Asia Summit, which brings together leaders from ASEAN and its eight key partners – China, the United States, Japan, India, Russia, Australia, South Korea, and New Zealand. Indonesia hopes to create a looser and more pluralistic grouping that would not be dominated by one or more powers, thereby allowing ASEAN to continue to play the central role of convener.
By contrast, Indonesia’s role in the G-20 remains limited, as does its potential to act as a representative for developing countries. But, unlike the more confrontational BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), Indonesia hopes to foster cooperation among developed and developing countries. It has also sought a leadership role on such strategic global issues as climate change and inter-faith dialogue.
Furthermore, Indonesia has worked to promote democracy. For example, since 2008, it has hosted the annual Bali Democracy Forum, at which representatives of established and aspiring democracies share their experiences. Such initiatives underscore the global attention focused on Indonesia, a Muslim-majority democracy, in the wake of the Arab Spring. Indeed, various Arab countries, notably Egypt and Tunisia, are seeking Indonesian leaders’ advice on balancing Islam and politics.
Such efforts have not always been popular with Indonesia’s ASEAN partners, owing to concerns that they breach ASEAN’s rule of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. But they have contributed to progress in important areas. For example, Indonesian officials have encouraged reform in Myanmar, helped to bring about an end to the border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia, and pushed for democracy and human rights to be enshrined in an ASEAN political and security community.
Ultimately, however, Indonesia’s clout stems from its soft power. So, while Indonesians may court the global spotlight, their chief concerns should be fostering strong and stable economic growth, stemming domestic religious intolerance, and preserving ASEAN unity in the face of China’s increasingly assertive policy in the region. Indonesia should not allow its newfound confidence to become foreign-policy arrogance.
Dewi Fortuna Anwar is Deputy Chair for Social Sciences and Humanities at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences and Chairman of the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights at the Habibie Center.