Foreign policy in a maritime world
January-March 2016
By: Hasjim Djalal

It is often said that foreign policy is a reflection of domestic policy. In reality, foreign policy is also very much influenced by the evolving regional and international situation. That is my first premise in discussing Indonesian foreign policy as it is likely to be in the next few years. It would be difficult to clearly define Indonesia’s foreign policy for the next 25 years, however, for a variety of reasons.

This is partly due to the possible changes and developments within Indonesia’s domestic political life; partly due to developments in the regional constellation; partly due to the constantly changing and fluid situation in international affairs; and partly due to the personalities of those who are responsible for implementing foreign policy. It is possible, however, to sketch a general vision of Indonesian foreign policy for the next few years.

My premise is that the basis and principles of Indonesian foreign policy in the years ahead will remain unchanged. Pancasila will continue to provide its ideological basis and principles. The 1945 Constitution, although it has been amended four times, will continue to be its constitutional and legal framework. The concept of strengthening national and regional resilience, including the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in regional politics, will also continue to be the basic motivation of foreign policy. Wawasan Nusantara, or the outlook of national unity, whether in political, economic, defense, legal or territorial terms, will continue to be implemented and will be the guiding principle in developing “maritime orientation.” Finally, Indonesia’s “active and independent” foreign policy, which has been a major strength since the early days of its independence, and which later manifested itself in the policy of nonalignment, will continue to be relevant, albeit with a different emphasis and more focus on economic development rather than political rhetoric, and on the need for cooperation rather than confrontation. 

In short, Indonesia will continue to pursue a foreign policy that is designed to protect national interests; is based on cooperation rather than confrontation; emphasizes economic development rather than political adventurism; stands for the regional and global reduction of tension and disarmament rather than military alliances and arms races; and focuses more attention on ocean and maritime policy.

How to translate these bases and principles into actual policies in a changing and interconnected national, regional and international context will be one of the major challenges for Indonesian foreign policy in the future, namely to develop and actualize the so-called balanced or dynamic equilibrium in a desired world of “one million friends and zero enemies.”

The domestic situation

If we look into the domestic policies and situation of Indonesia, there are a number of factors that may influence or have a bearing on the conduct of foreign policy in the future. They include national development, particularly in the social and economic fields.

Development will remain the primary preoccupation of the country in the years ahead.  Thus, foreign policy will have to continue to be “development and peace oriented” in the sense that it must continue within the context of the trilogy of development: stability, economic growth and social justice. In order to safeguard and support the development program of the country, it is essential to maintain domestic peace and stability. This, however, is not the function of foreign policy. 

Yet, it is equally important to maintain and develop regional peace and stability, social and economic growth, and a cooperative relationship among Southeast Asian nations, so that development efforts in Indonesia can be pursued more effectively. This is the function of foreign policy. The world should be peaceful, stable and oriented to socioeconomic development. It is also important for Indonesia to contribute to regional peace, stability and development, thus strengthening national and regional resilience. Therefore, efforts to promote international and regional peace and cooperation in Southeast Asia, the South China Sea and the Pacific and the Indian Oceans will and should continue to attract Indonesia’s attention, mostly because they are also important for the country’s development. 

Indonesia and national unity

The problem of national unity will remain a key issue, as it has political, ethnic, religious and territorial aspects. Political differences and ethnic or religious affiliations should not cause national disunity or national disintegration, as the price would be very expensive for the nation.

Much has been done since Indonesia joined the United Nations in 1950 to promote its own national unity and development. The experience of the last 50 years since the 1965 Communist rebellion has taught us to strengthen the links between domestic and foreign policies, so that domestic developments provide guidance for the implementation of foreign policy. One insight that may be derived from that experience is that economic development in Indonesia still needs to be spread across the entire country and to the entire population. The central government should therefore be careful and tactful so that the “jealousy” of Indonesia’s outer islands during the late 1950s that felt exploited by Jakarta will not recur and endanger national unity. We should learn from the sad experience of rebellions in a number of provinces between 1957 and 1960 and see to it that this is not repeated, particularly in regard to far-flung regions such as Papua. Otherwise, it may adversely affect national unity and stability and create domestic problems that could negatively impact effective foreign policy.

Maritime orientation

Although the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 recognized Indonesia’s status as an archipelagic state, thus providing a sound basis for “territorializing” national unity, its future implementation will face many challenges. Much has been done to promote Indonesia’s national interests in the Law of the Sea and within maritime affairs. The application of the archipelagic state principles and the 12-mile territorial sea to Indonesia has expanded our maritime territory to some 1.6 million square miles. In addition, the extension of Indonesia’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf outside our archipelagic waters and territorial sea has extended Indonesia’s sovereign rights over natural resources and jurisdiction over environmental protection, marine scientific research and the establishment of artificial islands, structures and installations over an additional area of some 1.6 million square miles. The new Law of the Sea has in fact authorized Indonesia to control some three million square miles of the earth’s surface. As former President BJ Habibie has stated, Indonesia is a “maritime continent.”

Maintaining national unity, security, law enforcement and defense in the expanded maritime and airspace of Indonesia is another major challenge in the years ahead.  Considering Indonesia’s insular geography, this would require well-coordinated planning and development by the Indonesian Armed Forces and other relevant law enforcement agencies and departments. The horizon and parameters of Indonesia’s future defense posture will also have to be more outward looking, namely to the open seas in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, the Pacific Ocean and neighboring “semi-enclosed” seas such as the Andaman, the Celebes, the Arafura and the Timor Seas. Indonesia will have to decide whether it will be a “maritime power” in name only because of its vast maritime territory, or whether it will really be a “maritime power” in fact, with blue-water naval and air capabilities, and the capacity to use all its space and resources and safeguard them. If Indonesia does decide to become a real “maritime power,” as it should, history has indicated that it would take at least 15 to 20 years to realize that aspiration. This becomes more important as two close and great neighbors of Indonesia, namely India and China, are also moving to become maritime powers.

Law and justice

There are a number of other domestic issues in the years ahead that could affect Indonesia’s implementation of its foreign policy. The issue of “corruption and collusion” will have to be given more attention as it can affect the credibility of the national government, thereby making it difficult to pursue an effective foreign policy.  Equally, the issues of law and justice will also spring up, making it necessary to strike a balance between procedural and substantive justice. The seeming disparity between the swift development of Indonesia’s economy and the less apparent development of spirituality has created the impression that Indonesian society is becoming more materialistic, rather than idealistic.

This impression could also lead to public debate in the years ahead. This debate may in turn affect the direction and essence of Indonesia’s development strategy, and subsequently the implementation of foreign policy, since foreign policy is itself oriented to economic development. Another domestic issue that can affect domestic stability is the uneven economic development between the various regions and provinces within the sprawling Indonesian archipelago. It is generally perceived that Western Indonesia is more developed than Eastern Indonesia.

Fortunately, the Indonesian government is fully aware of these challenges and has taken certain preventive measures. The expeditious and effective implementation of those measures, such as programs to develop the largely maritime provinces of Eastern Indonesia, should contribute significantly to the maintenance of national unity, economic growth and stability. In this context, the policy to develop subregional growth areas, such as the Singapore-Malaysia-Indonesia Growth Triangle, a special economic zone known as Sijori, could be established in Eastern Indonesian provinces. Papua New Guinea, Australia and perhaps other countries in the South West Pacific could also participate. Indonesia’s foreign policy should include continuing to explore possibilities for developing regional development models with the relevant neighboring countries, but without endangering or weakening efforts to strengthen national unity and cohesion.

The promotion of economic growth and social justice will continue to be a key element in the trilogy of development. The world has now acknowledged Indonesia as an “economic success” for being able to sustain relatively high growth and raise the standard of living of its people. Partly due to this “economic miracle” and partly due to the stability of its domestic environment, Indonesia has been able to consistently draw the interest of foreign investors, and foreign governments and financial institutions. At the same time, Indonesia is also paying more attention to regional and global developments as domestic social and economic developments have become more sensitive to them.

The per capita income of Indonesians has multiplied several times during the last two decades. This is something that Indonesians can be proud of. Yet the distribution of national income still needs to be monitored because some 12 percent of Indonesians still live on or below the poverty line. Positioning Indonesia to face regional and global economic competition as well as spreading national income more equitably to lower-class citizens will also be major challenges as they could affect the conduct of foreign policy.

Democratization and human rights

The challenges of democratization and human rights will also become more prominent for Indonesia, and their impact on foreign policy cannot be ignored. While Indonesia maintains a certain kind of democracy based on its own experience and cultural background, its democratization process should be unrelentingly pursued to give it more substance and form. A democratization process that is too quick and abrupt, such as in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, can become uncontrollable or unmanageable, and in the end could bring about the disintegration of the whole system. Yet, without proper substance and form, a slow democratization process can also create more problems. The experiences of other countries should be carefully studied so that precious lessons are learned.

Equally, human rights issues have been globalized, making it difficult to insulate Indonesia from these concerns. Indonesia is rightly and increasingly aware of the globalization process, including in economics and political and human rights issues. The issues of democratization and human rights, including in Indonesia’s Papua region, will continue to influence the implementation of Indonesia’s foreign policy. How to deal with these matters in a balanced manner will be another challenge that requires political wisdom. Any retrogression in the process of democratization and promotion of human rights will make it more difficult for our foreign policy to maneuver.

The role of the Armed Forces

Within the last few years, the role of Indonesia’s Armed Forces has also been a matter of debate. I feel that the basic concept of dwifungsi – the military’s dual political and security role during the Soeharto regime – will not return. Yet, the “partnership” between former leaders of the Armed Forces and political parties should also be monitored in the foreseeable future, although the Armed Forces will strive to stand above all politics.  Recent indications and trends should be carefully studied and observed, especially the relationship between socioeconomic development and stability, and the role of the Armed Forces, including the relationship between the National Police and the Armed Forces. It has been surmised that as greater stability and socioeconomic development occur, the less prominent the Armed Forces will be in sociopolitical functions, in stabilizing and “dynamizing” Indonesian society. How to develop a more appropriate role for the Armed Forces given the changing domestic, regional and international situations will be a challenge for the military’s thinkers. The reality is that the Armed Forces, in its long history of struggle for national independence, unity and development, have always defended the interests of the country and the people. Yet, different perceptions seem to have surfaced lately. There is a suspected competition between elements of the Armed Forces and elements of the National Police. If this is true, it is cause for concern. It should be an immediate task of the Armed Forces and the National Police to quash, carefully and judiciously, such a perception among the public, no matter how small or insignificant it may appear. They should continue to take every measure to safeguard their roles and reputations as loyal defenders of the nation.

The regional context

Indonesia’s foreign policy should strive to protect Indonesian national interests, especially its national development plans, in both the short and long term. Indonesia must take advantage of the present and rare mood in the region for peace, economic development and regional cooperation, particularly given the rise of Asia in the 21st century. It is predicted that by 2050, Asia will account for about 50 percent of global gross domestic product, compared to about 27 percent today. The situation can be viewed as a series of geopolitical and strategic concentric circles. There are at least three theaters in which Indonesia’s foreign policy is operating, or will have to operate.

The rise of China is one of the most interesting developments to watch in this region in the coming years. Since Beijing adopted the Four Modernizations policy in 1978 – agriculture, science and technology, industry and defense – China has become a maritime and continental power. Several factors are interesting in this regard:

  • China’s plan to buy a large number of long-range MIG aircraft, dozens of submarines and even aircraft carriers.
  • Its recent difficult relations with the United States and to some extent with Japan, as if to reflect a possible new confrontation in Asia, in particular the Korean Peninsula, to increase Beijing’s political strength.
  • China’s policy regarding Taiwan, which seems to indicate a willingness to maintain the status quo. China and Taiwan, whose leaders met for the first time ever last November, also appear to have agreed on the principle of “One China,” with one country and two systems. Cross-strait relations have therefore improved considerably over the last several years.
  • China’s increasingly assertive policy in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
  • Its nuclear policy, in which it continues to conduct nuclear weapons testing.

All of this is worth careful monitoring by China’s neighbors, especially the Asean countries. It is worth noting that while many countries, including the United States and Southeast Asian countries, say that they are pursuing a policy of “constructive engagement” with China, it appears that China may not believe them, in particular with regard to the South China Sea. Equally, while China professes to pursue a policy of “peaceful cooperation” with the countries around it and beyond, including in Southeast Asia, suspicion remains about Beijing’s intentions due to various historical reasons.

How Indonesia and the other Asean countries manage their future relations with the emerging power that is China as well as other powers in the region – the United States, Japan, Australia and India – will be a major foreign policy concern in the years ahead, given the deficit of trust and ongoing territorial disputes.

Toward the West

Indonesia will also have to pay more attention to the Indian Ocean and the countries around it in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Although none of the countries in the Indian Ocean region pose any problem or danger to Indonesia, the prospect for developing an Indian Ocean policy of cooperation within the context of preventive diplomacy should not be underrated. Indonesia has a very long coastline on the Indian Ocean. It also has a very large exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in the ocean. Many of its islands, including the two largest, Sumatra and Java, which are home to the majority of Indonesia’s population, border the Indian Ocean.

The ocean offers enormous potential resources for Indonesia’s economic development, particularly fisheries and mineral resources. Indonesia has taken an active interest in the development of cooperative efforts in the Indian Ocean involving nations in Africa, the Persian Gulf and South Asia, and Australia, be they governmental or otherwise. They include the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Cooperation, based in Colombo; the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, based in Mauritius; the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, headquartered in the Seychelles; and the Informal Forum on the Indian Ocean Region, based in Perth, Australia. It is essential that Indonesia participate actively in these efforts in the Indian Ocean, particularly with the rise of India as an economic and strategic power, and the continued importance of the Middle East and Africa in global politics, as well as the problems of human and drug trafficking.

Indonesia, as an archipelagic country, has pursued constructive relations with the countries around it for many years. It should now define and develop its maritime policy toward the seas and oceans surrounding it. The maritime component of Indonesia’s domestic and foreign policies should be given greater and closer attention to better safeguard national unity and development, as well as regional cohesiveness and cooperation.

Global context

While Indonesia’s most vital interests lie within the three geostrategic concentric circles of its immediate foreign policy theater, this does not mean the rest of the world is not important to Indonesia. In fact, through the years, the scope of the geostrategic concentric circles has continued to expand as a result of globalization and technological advances in communication.

Moreover, Indonesia’s interests are more than simply in geostrategic concentric circles.  The circles could change depending on the perspective: economic, cultural or political.  From an economic point of view, the development of fruitful relations with countries with which Indonesia maintains strong economic and trade relations is essential, particularly with major industrial and industrializing countries in North America, the West Pacific/Northeast Asia and Europe, which are the three main engines of global economic and trade development. While Indonesia’s economic and trade relations with West Pacific countries have shown significant progress, economic and trade relations with Europe and North America continue to have great potential. Here lies the significance of Indonesia’s initiatives and participation in the Asean Regional Forum and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, most recently held in the Philippines in November. South American countries, particularly Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico, are seeing more economic development and paying attention to East Asia and Indonesia.  Indonesia’s foreign policy should also include developing more active and substantive relations with this region.

Equally, from a cultural and economic point of view, relations between Indonesia and Middle Eastern and South Asian countries are significant. This is a compelling reason for Indonesia’s continued active and constructive participation in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and other similar fora, and its efforts to expand economic and trade relations with these countries.

From a global political and economic point of view, strengthening Indonesia’s relations with nonaligned and other developing countries should not be underestimated either, just as Indonesia’s role in the United Nations remains essential. In fact, it can be expected that Indonesia will be even more closely and intensively engaged with the countries in various “concentric circles,” be they geopolitical and strategic, economic and trade, or sociocultural. One of the basic tenets of Indonesian foreign policy, as stipulated in the preamble to the 1945 Constitution, is to take an active part in implementing a world order based on independence, lasting peace and social justice. This shall continue to be an important element in the conduct of Indonesian global foreign policy in the coming years.

After the end of the Cold War, there were many discussions about a possible clash between Western and Eastern civilizations, which may also influence the conduct of foreign policies. It is important that Indonesia’s foreign policy in the years to come continues to develop the prospect for cooperation rather than confrontation. I believe the general trends for regional, global and specific cooperation will continue in the years ahead. Indonesia should continue to nurture and participate actively in developing such trends.

Indonesia should play a more active role in global issues, such as peace and security and economic and social development, through the United Nations and its agencies and various multinational endeavors. In my view, the development of Indonesian nationalism within the context of regional peace, stability and development could also be pursued more intensively through multilateral diplomacy and various multilateral institutions. That way, Indonesian foreign policy would truly have a global perspective.

The Joko administration

The administration of Joko Widodo has indicated that Indonesia will implement the so-called Trisakti policy, namely that Indonesia will be politically sovereign, self-sustained economically and have a cultural personality. These three basic tenets have nine programs, called Nawacita:

  • The state shall protect the nation as a whole and ensure the sense of safety for the whole nation through an independent and active foreign policy, reliable national security and building up national defense, based on national interests and strengthening Indonesia as a maritime nation.
  • To see that the government “is not absent,” by managing a clean government, prioritizing public trust in institutional democracy and continuing to consolidate democracy through political reforms, general elections and representative institutions.
  • To develop Indonesia from the rear by strengthening its districts and villages within the framework of the Unitary State of Indonesia.
  • To reject a “weak state” by conducting reforms and adhering to the rule of law, which is free from corruption and trustworthy.
  • To promote quality of life for Indonesians by improving the quality of education and training, and promoting prosperity though government programs; promoting land reform and ownership, village housing and cheap and subsidized apartments; and social security by 2019.
  • To promote productivity and competitiveness in international markets so that the people of Indonesia can make progress and rise together with other Asian nations.
  • To realize an independent economy by activating domestic strategic sectors.
  • To carry out a revolution of national character by rearranging the national education curriculum to promote citizenship education, teaching the value of patriotism and love of country, and the spirit of national self-defense.
  • To strengthen the national motto of “Unity in Diversity” and strengthen society through diverse education programs and by creating space for dialogue among citizens.

With respect to foreign policy, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has developed the Nawacita into six main points:

  • Promote Indonesia as a maritime nation, and take advantage of its strategic position between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
  • Indonesian diplomacy will be “down to earth” and conducted steadfastly and honorably.
  • Emphasize the protection of Indonesian nationals abroad through three approaches: prevention, early detection and protection.
  • Indonesia will take steps to prepare for the Asean Economic Community.
  • Indonesia will help Pacific countries within the context of South-South cooperation.
  • Indonesia will participate in the Indian Ocean Rim Association, which as of late 2015 consisted of 20 member nations.

President Joko’s vision is commonly known as the “maritime axis,” and its five main pillars are developing a maritime culture in Indonesia; protecting and managing the country’s maritime resources; building and developing maritime infrastructure and connectivity; developing maritime cooperation through diplomacy; and building up maritime defense and security. The prospects for this policy are positive, mainly because Indonesia’s maritime zones are generally regarded as secure, which ensures maritime transportation and opens opportunities for the shipping sector.


During Indonesia’s War of Independence (1945-50), foreign policy efforts were aimed at obtaining recognition as an independent nation and a legitimate member of the global community through the United Nations. Some prominent Indonesian diplomats devoted their time and energy for this purpose including Muhammad Hatta, Sutan Sjahrir, H Agus Salim, LN Palar, Ali Sastroamidjojo and Adam Malik.

The next stage of Indonesian diplomacy was to galvanize the struggle against imperialism and colonialism worldwide. Indonesia was thus instrumental in organizing the Asian-African Conference in Bandung, West Java Province, in April 1955, in cooperation with China, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt and other African countries. At the same time, Indonesia was busy facing domestic political problems and struggling to maintain its national unity and territorial integrity. It was in this context that the Juanda Declaration was announced on December 13, 1957, stating that Indonesia was an archipelagic state and the waters around its many islands was continuous Indonesian territory. Indonesia continued to work hard to gain legal international recognition as an archipelagic state.

After most countries in Africa gained independence, especially after 1958, and with the intensification of the Cold War between the capitalist “West” and communist “East,” Indonesia’s foreign policy focused on remaining independent of these two blocs, and as such was instrumental in forging the Nonaligned Movement.

Toward the end of the 1960s, with the enactment of the Law on Foreign Investment in 1967, Indonesia began to concentrate on economic development. Foreign policy shifted focus toward economic factors. The Indonesian economy gained momentum and by the end of 1970s was recognized as a new “young tiger” economy, ready to roar in Asia and globally. Indonesia also played an active role in creating the Group of 77 developing countries, which works to create a more balanced global economic system. Yet the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 triggered significant changes to Indonesia’s political system. President Soeharto’s New Order regime, which had ruled since 1967, collapsed and the reform era began, with an emphasis on democracy, human rights and separation of powers.

Today, Indonesia will face new challenges and opportunities in foreign policy – domestically, regionally and internationally. It is therefore important that Indonesia, particularly its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is prepared and ready. It must be able to accurately anticipate future events and developments, so it can devise the most appropriate policies to deal with them. It will be necessary to improve human resources, the ministry’s recruitment system and its career development planning, as well as its facilities, management and institutional mechanisms. Articulating foreign policy slogans of “dynamic equilibrium” or “one million friends and zero enemies” or “down to earth” is one thing, but having a maritime outlook requires that Indonesia be prepared to address territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the lack of trust among regional actors.


Hasjim Djalal is a retired Indonesian diplomat and expert on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

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