Redesigning Indonesia's foreign policy in the 21st century
Niche diplomacy the way forward on the regional and global stage
10 November 2015
By: Mohamad Rosyidin


It has been just over a year since Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo took office, and during that time his government has been implementing a free and active foreign policy, as manifested in the concept of ‘pro-people diplomacy.'

One year in, the vast majority of domestic society has a positive perception of the nation’s  foreign policies. For instance, the execution of transnational drugs smugglers, the destruction of illegal fishing boats, and the open-up policy towards the Rohingya refugees.

So far, it can be said that President Joko’s foreign policy has succeeded in recovering state sovereignty and national pride. The people largely are satisfied with what the government has done in terms of a ‘free’ or ‘independent’ foreign policy emphasizing short-term national interests.

But what about Indonesia’s diplomatic posture on the international stage? Is Indonesia still perceived as an influential global player? These are questions that should be taken seriously by the government because the nation is an emerging middle power with a great opportunity to become a major power in Asia.

The case of Indonesia’s role in the international arena is undoubtedly a major topic of discussion for both domestic and international scholars. And this is because Jokowi’s foreign policy focuses solely on domestic matters. Compared to the administration of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi has shown less interest in participating in international forums.

In the G-20 group of nations, Indonesia no longer favors idealistic missions such as being the ‘voice of developing countries,’ defending the interests of developing countries, or being a ‘bridge-builder’ that tries to bridge the gap between the developed and the developing worlds.

Indonesia also plays a minor role in MIKTA, the informal club consisting of five middle power countries (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and Australia). During the MIKTA Summit in Seoul in July 2015, the forum merely focused on internal cooperation between its members on issues such as trade, education, and counter terrorism. There was no discussion on how to deal with global problems.

As a window of opportunity, Indonesia should have utilized MIKTA as an instrument of power in the global sphere. If the nation has difficulty playing its role in a larger forum such as the G-20, it should utilize other multilateral forums. But it appears that Indonesia considers those forums solely as instruments to pursue short-term national interests.


Little influence

There is an enduring debate regarding Indonesia’s influence in the global sphere. According to the optimists, Indonesia attained a prestigious position under President Yudhoyono’s administration. During his tenure, Indonesia transformed from a regional power into a global player. The most visible achievement was its membership of the G-20 group of nations.

The international community showed its appreciation by labeling Indonesia as a pivotal state, a state that had influential power within the region as well as in the wider arena of global politics. Kliman (2012) in his prominent article included Indonesia into the Global Swing States along with other emerging powers such as Brazil, India, and Turkey. Likewise, former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa called Indonesia a regional power with global interests and concerns. 

Meanwhile, the pessimists argue that Indonesia has little influence despite the fact that it has huge capabilities in terms of economy, military, demography, and geography. For example, when the Syrian conflict escalated and destabilized security in the region, Indonesia did not play the role of ‘peacemaker’ as it used to. Rather, it abstained at the UN Security Council regarding the creation of a Syrian National Coalition, took part in a UN supervisory mission, and called recalled the Indonesian Ambassador to Syria to Jakarta (Pujayanti, 2013).

Even in Southeast Asia, Indonesia seemed incapable of coping with the Rohingya refugee crisis. Although the international community expressed its appreciation to the government for its willingness to temporarily accept the Rohingya refugees, it did not play a role as ‘norms-setter’ in formulating an institutional framework for them. This is important since the Rohingyas are not just a problem for Indonesia, but for the region as a whole.

At the 26th Asean Summit in Kuala Lumpur on April 26-28, 2015, Indonesia made no attempt to table a motion to discuss the Rohingya issue with other members. Regardless of the non-interference policy held by Asean, Indonesia has previously been regarded as primus inter pares, or first among equals, and should have made an attempt to persuade members to solve the problem.

Many analysts argue that the small impact of Indonesia’s foreign policy on external issues is caused by domestic weaknesses: economic vulnerabilities, weak democratic consolidation, corruption, terrorism, communal conflicts, weak rule of law, and so on. These abundant factors have prevented Indonesia from becoming an influential global power (Sukma in Reid, 2012). Therefore, it makes sense that Jokowi gives priority to domestic instead of global concerns.


Niche diplomacy

I argue that aside from domestic weaknesses, the low impact of Indonesia’s foreign policy on global issues is caused by a lack of effective diplomacy. During the Yudhoyono presidency Indonesia played a number of international roles. Yudhoyono himself asserted that Indonesia was able to play roles as a norms-setter, a consensus-builder, a peacekeeper, a bridge-builder, and a voice of developing world.

But, playing too many roles can burden the state’s performance when competing in the international environment. An ambitious foreign policy can be exhausting and often yield unexpected results. This is why Indonesia’s foreign policy was described by veteran journalist Endy Bayuni (2015) as ‘punching above its weight.’

In international politics, the only actors able to control all global issues are the superpowers. They do so because they have hegemonic power. States are usually influential only on one or two issues. For example, South Korea and Japan are two states that are more influential on economic development than on peacemaking. Conversely, Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Finland, and Sweden are more influential on peacemaking than on economic development.

This strategy is called niche diplomacy; the characteristic of a middle power foreign policy focusing on a single international issue (Cooper, 1997). As in the economic realm, states choose to focus on a single field because they will have a competitive as well as a comparative advantage. In addition, being a specialist will make their voices heard. It means that competency creates legitimacy.

Indonesia needs to redesign its foreign policy strategy with respect to the capacity and capability it possesses. As shown by middle powers above Indonesia that are influential global powers with relatively limited resources. Focusing on a single international role would be much better than playing many at the same time.

Indonesia, for example, can take a strategic role in the peace issue given that it has been considered prominent in this particular field. Indonesia can play a leading role not only because of its commitment towards world peace, as envisioned in the constitution, but also its experiences as peacemaker both in the domestic and international arena.

With regard to peacekeeping operations, Indonesia is the 11th largest contributor of peacekeeper troops, recently sending 2,735 personnel to several regions that were hit by conflict.

Speaking at the UN Headquarters in New York, Vice President Jusuf Kalla promised to increase the number of Indonesian peacekeeping troops to 4,000 by 2019. This commitment represents Indonesia’s competence to be a global peacemaker.

Mohamad Rosyidin is a lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Universitas Diponegoro, Semarang.

08 December 2015
Plans to buy defense systems from China will impact relations with allies
by Debalina Ghoshal | 9 February 2012 | Comments (0)
07 December 2015
We have to be clear what our foreign policy objectives are
by Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar | 9 February 2012 | Comments (0)
30 November 2015
What are the prospects for political change and their regional implications post the election?
by Adhi Priamarizki | 9 February 2012 | Comments (0)
Please login to leave a comment