Has Indonesia been weighed, measured and found wanting?

Puguh Sadadi

Published in Jakarta Post

The article by Rizal Sukma titled “Is Indonesia tilting toward China?” in this newspaper last Dec. 11 largely defends Indonesia’s strategy of diplomatic “hedging”. “Hedging” here basically refers to protecting Indonesia’s interests against losses on its “diplomatic investments” by balancing interests or making adjustments in consideration of Indonesia’s strategic relations with China.

Rizal is right to assert that we should not underestimate Indonesia’s commitment to preserving its own strategic autonomy. However, the implementation of Indonesia’s foreign policy does not reflect this argument.

The three cases that show a growing relationship between Indonesia and China — inviting Chinese investment, joining the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and preferring China over Japan for the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed train project — are not out of the ordinary.

The counter-arguments that shows Indonesia’s independence in dealing with China — the South China Sea case and Indonesia’s strategic partnerships with the US and Japan — continue Indonesia’s foreign policy from the previous administration.

The strategy of Indonesia’s foreign policy is to apparently only maintain sound bilateral relationships with major regional and global powers. It illustrates the tendency of being “anxious” with the uncertain future configuration of regional and global politics.

Without any intention of accusing the government of a weak foreign policy stance, the execution of Indonesia’s foreign policy invites at least three interpretations from the outside.

First, Indonesia’s membership of the AIIB and its intention to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) can be interpreted as a sign of worry that it might get left behind. If we compare Indonesia with Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, those four ASEAN members have a better position within the TPP and are also members of the AIIB.

Second, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s approach to China can be interpreted as an attempt to encourage China to incline more toward Indonesia, but it also could be seen as desperate longing for foreign direct investment from China.

In business, if one is in need of investment or has a lack of cash, investors can play better cards in their strategy.

Finally, the third and maybe the most important interpretation is the government’s rough and obvious execution of its foreign policy.

Speaking of big regional and global powers, President Jokowi conducted his first state visit to Japan and his second to China before visiting the US in October.

All visits were conceivably within the strategy of strengthening Indonesia’s strategic relationships with the three important partners. However, to visit Japan first then China must have meaning for both Japan and China.

We should also be aware of the hasty process of visiting the US, which the researcher Michael Buehler deemed to have generated mediocre benefits.

If Indonesia preserves its own strategic autonomy by sticking to a balancing strategy, how can it fulfill the mission of Jokowi’s Nawacita (nine priorities)?

From Nawacita, at least three points can be used as references for Indonesia’s foreign policy.

First, its free and active foreign policy; second, the improvement of people’s productivity and competitiveness in the international market; and third, achieving economic independence by moving strategic sectors to the domestic economy.

Based on Nawacita, the hedging strategy would work better if it didn’t diminish people’s productivity and competitiveness and was in line with efforts to achieve economic independence, which theoretically is paradoxical to the need for investment.

Indonesia should have confidence as a big country with great potential to grow bigger. Although the hedging strategy is good as a mid-way point for not upsetting global powers, it is more important for Indonesia to make its specific domestic interests the main driver behind its foreign policy.

For example, borrowing Rizal’s argument, Jokowi’s invitation to foreign investors is driven by clear national interest — the need for foreign direct investment.

Also in line with Rizal’s argument, Indonesia is not a pawn and should never become one in the game of great powers’ rivalries and quests for influence.

But this argument may fall apart without coherent execution of foreign policy.

In short, foreign policy with such hedging strategies are too obvious for Japan, China and the US. It is not only because of Indonesia’s lack of bargaining power, but also because its maneuvers in executing its policy need to be more polished. Foreign policy strategy is similar to a chess game.

It should be able to measure all opponents with the aim of becoming the champion. An old English expression popularized by the movie A Knight’s Tale (2001) goes “You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you absolutely have been found wanting.” Indonesia may become a fallen knight if its foreign policy strategy and its execution gets weighed, measured and found wanting.


The writer is a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester, the UK. The views expressed are his own.


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