When Joko Widodo came to power last year, he promised to be decisive
and to stand up for Indonesia. On April 29th he seemed to fulfil both
promises when Indonesia went ahead with the executions of eight
convicted drug-smugglers, all but one of them foreign (see article).
Their fates, which hung on the pen of the president, have strained
Indonesia’s foreign relations. Australia has snapped, withdrawing its
ambassador, for now (see article).
The executions may throw light on how Jokowi, as he is known, intends
to conduct his foreign policy. If so, he risks damage to Indonesia’s
international standing. Only a few months ago, pundits said the chief
risk under Jokowi was that handling foreign matters would hardly feature
In terms of its population (250m) and its economy ($870 billion),
Indonesia is the giant of South-East Asia. But geographically disparate,
chronically underdeveloped and wracked by political instability after
the fall of Suharto in 1998, it has punched below its weight
diplomatically. That began to change under Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo
Bambang Yudhoyono. Indonesia joined the G20, took an increasingly
assertive role in climate-change talks and encouraged pluralism among
developing countries at the Bali Democracy Forum. Indonesia assumed a
larger role within the often dithering ten-country Association of
South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Other members welcomed it.
Mr Yudhoyono pursued a foreign policy of “a thousand friends and zero
enemies”. By the end, it came to look less like an expression of
universal goodwill than an excuse to avoid hard choices. Still,
Indonesia began to play a role on the world stage that was more
commensurate with its size.
Mr Yudhoyono seemed a foreign-affairs heavyweight compared with Jokowi, a former mayor with no foreign-policy experience.
Yet even before the latest executions (Mr Yudhoyono introduced a
moratorium on capital punishment), Jokowi had signalled a break with the
past. He abandoned the “thousand friends” policy after returning from
his first foreign trip as president. He said that he would favour those
countries “who give the most benefit to the people. What’s the point of
having many friends if we only get the disadvantages?”
Closest to home, the approach entails a more hard-nosed view of
ASEAN. Rizal Sukma, a Jokowi foreign-policy adviser and a one-time
advocate of Indonesia playing a more assertive regional role, says that
whereas Indonesia once called ASEAN “the cornerstone of our foreign policy, now we change it to a
cornerstone”. An ambassador in Jakarta says Jokowi would like ASEAN to
be “a place where he can get business done”. He seems to have little
patience for its consensual, process-driven flummery.
If that counts as a kind of assertiveness, then it is on display
along with another aspect of what is presented as Jokowi’s foreign
policy, his new “maritime doctrine”. Millions of Indonesians live off
the sea, mainly from fishing, while much of the vast archipelago’s trade
moves by sea. Jokowi wants to spread prosperity by making fisheries
more productive, assert control over Indonesia’s sovereign waters and
build marine infrastructure to help bring Indonesia’s poor and far-flung
eastern islands into Java’s relatively prosperous orbit. But that
entails a crackdown on illegal fishing by other countries’ vessels—as
many as 5,000 a day, according to the president. Indonesia has few
working patrol boats. Jokowi has promised to boost the naval and
coastguard budgets as he doubles the share of GDP spent on defence (to
1.5%) over the next five years.
In the meantime, Jokowi has plumped for theatrical displays of
deterrence. Since he took office in October the navy has blown up 30-odd
foreign boats fishing illegally, most of them from Thailand or Vietnam.
ASEAN neighbours complain about Indonesian shin-kicking. Even an
Indonesian foreign-policy hand calls the boat-burning “the act of an
insecure power” designed to appeal to a domestic audience.
Yet the resolve fades when it comes to China. The Indonesian
authorities have seized Chinese vessels, but they have not sunk them.
Indonesia says it has no territorial disputes with China in the South
China Sea, unlike Vietnam and the Philippines (see article).
But Indonesia would prefer not to pick a fight, even as it hedges its
bets by boosting defence ties with Japan, calling for a more visible
American military presence and sending more soldiers to its Natunas
islands (which China does not claim, but whose waters fall within the
“nine-dash line” it has drawn around nearly all of the South China Sea).
Does this add up to a new foreign policy of clear-eyed realism?
Regrettably not. It is true that Jokowi cares deeply about a drugs
scourge and the damage to national interests caused by illegal fishing.
But his prescriptions of executions of drug-traffickers and blowing up
fishing boats (except China’s) are more the outward manifestations of a
domestic nationalism than anything more considered. Such displays may
have to grow less frequent. Having friends counts for something.
This article originally appeared 2 May in The Economist.