In the Indo-Pacific, Jokowi needs to be more assertive and engaged

A revised version of this commentary has been published in The Jakarta Post, 22 June 2019. For citation purposes, please refer to the published version. This is a pre-submission final draft and should not be cited.

If Indonesia wishes to make any meaningful strides in advancing its Indo-Pacific Cooperation Concept, Jokowi would need to focus on engaging ASEAN leaders instead of focusing more on domestic policy.

Drawing from Jakarta Post’s interview with the President (13/06), Jokowi shows preference for domestic over international affairs. The overarching theme of his first term was infrastructural development and bureaucratic reform, encapsulated nicely in his slogan “kerja, kerja, kerja”(“work, work, work”). Jokowi has shown to have dedicated himself to this mission with mixed yet laudable results. His decision to allocate more funds to development has allowed significant progress in many critical infrastructure projects such as the Jakarta MRT, toll roads across the archipelago, and electrification.  

Since Jokowi now does not need to worry about re-election, he should now devote more effort and attention to his foreign policy. In his first term, Jokowi made waves by pledging to make Indonesia a Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF), a hub connecting two strategic oceans. This was welcome as a breath of fresh wind by foreign policy observers; I once described it as a more extroverted foreign policy (The Diplomat, 17/12/2016).

The GMF concept, however, remained underdeveloped. For the most part, the Indonesian Ocean Policy, an authoritative document describing Indonesia’s maritime priorities, focuses less on enhancing Indonesia’s maritime profile. Many pillars are, instead, dedicated to boosting domestic maritime indicators, such as domestic connectivity and economy. Granted, without domestic capacity, there is little hope for a state to play a larger international role. However, reluctance to develop the GMF’s foreign linkages only serves to undermine its perceived extroverted tendencies.

Further development of the GMF becomes imperative considering the shifting geopolitical context. Since 2007, the term “Indo-Pacific” has gained traction. The geopolitical construct, used to refer to the maritime and littoral areas of the Indian and West Pacific Ocean, has since been embraced by both great and middle powers alike. India, Japan, Australia, and the United States—all of which constitute members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—have proposed their respective Indo-Pacific visions, which basically share a similar “free and open” Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision or strategy. The United States perhaps holds the most assertive stance; forecasting a “geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” in the Indo-Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific is a direct challenge against China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Indonesia is caught in the middle. In an earlier commentary in the Jakarta Post (27/07/2018), I have outlined China’s aggressive acquisition of ports across the Indian Ocean and its implications for Indonesia. What I have ignored, however, was China’s argumentative stance against the Indo-Pacific geopolitical construct. Chinese National Defense Minister Wei Fenghe showcased this defiant tone in his speech at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue. In his fiery speech, he jabbed at continued U.S. naval operations, questioning their intents, and affirming China’s illegitimate militarization efforts in the South China Sea.

The geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific is indeed real. It is thus imperative for Indonesia to be an active contributor in constructing the Indo-Pacific.

Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific Cooperation Concept (or simply, Indo-Pacific Outlook), however, remains a fledgling concept which cannot be operationalized any time soon. The Indo-Pacific Outlook envisions a “peaceful, prosperous, and inclusive” Indo-Pacific. It also envisions ASEAN as being the region’s fulcrum where intersecting Indo-Pacific visions may converge and co-exist.

This stance further affirms showing Indonesia remains adherent to its conciliatory and non-aligned foreign policy tradition. Indonesia is reluctant to portray itself as an Indo-Pacific power due in part to pragmatic distancing. Jokowi’s massive infrastructure programs are to a large extent dependent on Chinese foreign loans; likewise, Indonesia cannot afford to jeopardize its relations with the United States. Thus, any Indo-Pacific notion coming out of Indonesia must be explicitly inclusive.

Since the start of 2019, Indonesia has waged a rather lackluster diplomatic campaign on the Indo-Pacific Outlook. China has embraced the Outlook due to its inclusive tendencies. In March, the first High-Level Dialogue saw 18 East Asia Summit members coming together to discuss Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific Outlook. The talks were a start, but further effort is required. In the 34th ASEAN Summit next week, Indonesia would need to ramp up its efforts to unite other members if an ASEAN-led Indo-Pacific concept were to gain any significant momentum.

This would require significant diplomatic engagement from Jokowi. Unlike Yudhoyono, who was an eloquent internationalist, Jokowi is technocratic and keener on concrete results over abstract rhetoric. But, for Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific Outlook to gain traction, he would need to be more involved in developing the Outlook.

He needs to be present at these high-level meetings to leverage Indonesia’s position and relations in the Indo-Pacific. He needs to engage in the informal backdoor diplomacy that has been Indonesia’s preferred mode of political communication in ASEAN and be more assertive in communicating with extra-regional partners. Most importantly, he needs to show that Indonesia cares about constructing a peaceful, prosperous, and inclusive Indo-Pacific led by ASEAN.

If domestic development was the theme of Jokowi’s first term, perhaps regional leadership should be the defining theme of his second term. To live up to the role of “natural leader” of Southeast Asia and to make concrete strides towards realizing the GMF, Jokowi needs to shed his low profile and consider focusing his efforts on serious lobbying other ASEAN members to make an ASEAN-led, or at least ASEAN-centric, Indo-Pacific vision possible.

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