Is Jokowi Turning His Back on ASEAN?

Compared with his predecessor, the Indonesian president has a very different foreign approach.

By Avery Poole
September 07, 2015

Under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Indonesia appears less oriented toward the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While this may be true, the explanation is more nuanced than proposed by many regional analyses. Many observers see Jokowi as more inward-looking than his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and point to his lack of foreign policy experience. I would argue that Jokowi is, in fact, not less oriented than Yudhoyono to Indonesia’s foreign relations as a policy priority; rather, he approaches it differently, for reasons that reflect a distinct approach to contemporary East Asia.

Indonesia under Jokowi is less oriented towards multilateralism in general. Yudhoyono emphasized Indonesia’s role in international organizations, including the G20 (in which Indonesia is the only Southeast Asian member), the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations. He also sought to advance Indonesia’s role in regional forums, including ASEAN, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Bali Democracy Forum. His Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, pointed to the importance of Indonesian diplomacy in “high-level forums” as helping to address challenges which require international cooperation (such as food security, natural disasters and transnational crime).

In contrast, Jokowi criticized the UN, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Asian Development Bank at the Asian-African Conference in April this year, for failing to deliver solutions for global economic woes.

Jokowi, in fact, appears to see greater value in Indonesia’s bilateral relations than in multilateralism. He and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi have indicated that they will concentrate on strategic bilateral relationships that benefit the Indonesian people. While it is to be expected that political leaders would emphasize national interests and benefits to citizens, it is notable that multilateralism – assumed by many to be the preferred setting for international cooperation in the interests of mutual gains and addressing common challenges – is no longer depicted as the means to that end. For example, while the current government regards trade as facilitating Indonesia’s economic growth, it does not appear to see ASEAN as the preferred forum in which to pursue beneficial trade arrangements.

Analysts such as Felix Utama Kosasih have expressed concern that Indonesia will suffer from its lack of commitment to the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). A recent editorial in The Jakarta Post argued that unwillingness to prepare for the AEC “will greatly impact the effectiveness of economic integrity. In the end it will be Indonesia itself that has to pay the price for its reluctance to accept reality.” Certainly the AEC could create the potential for gains through freer trade and investment among ASEAN member states. But it is not at all certain that it will actually form a “bloc” with a combined population and GDP of approximately 620 million and $4.7 trillion.

It is therefore not clear that deprioritizing the AEC will be harmful to Indonesia’s economic interests. In fact, Jokowi’s state visits early in his presidency to Japan and China – Indonesia’s largest and second largest export markets, respectively – reflect the importance of states outside ASEAN to Indonesia’s economy.

Of course, it is not only economic relations that shape Indonesia’s evolving approach to ASEAN. There is a general frustration among some key officials with ASEAN’s inability to provide substantive outcomes and benefits for Indonesia – and there were rumblings about this in influential quarters long before Jokowi took office.

In 2009, the executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Rizal Sukma, wrote an oft-cited piece in The Jakarta Post arguing that Indonesia needs a “post-ASEAN foreign policy.” Indonesia has always, he wrote, been “forced into compromise,” and its initiatives on human rights, democracy, and peacekeeping have “fallen on deaf ears” or been ridiculed. In late 2014, he argued that ASEAN is now just a cornerstone – no longer the cornerstone – of Indonesia’s foreign policy.

Should Jokowi be concerned about possible damage to Indonesia’s reputation as a regional and global player by a move away from ASEAN? It could be argued that it will demonstrate that he has a distinct foreign policy strategy. He also may feel a political need to respond to the nationalist sentiment that was highlighted during his presidential race against Prabowo Subianto in 2014. But Jokowi’s deprioritization of ASEAN is not just driven by domestic political concerns. He also seems less concerned with satisfying the expectations of other states.

As a major regional power, Indonesia is expected to play a central role in engaging in regional dialogue and addressing common challenges. It has traditionally been seen as the default leader of ASEAN, particularly because it has the largest population, land mass, and GDP (in absolute terms). But as Dr. Evi Fitriani recently noted (in a podcast for Indonesia at Melbourne), Jokowi’s government seems less concerned with the expectations of foreign countries, and with wanting to be seen as a “good citizen.”

Jokowi has been depicted in regional news media as tending towards nationalism, but the image of him as simply “inward-looking” is inaccurate. Rather, his administration has moved away from liberal internationalism in its foreign policy. For example, he is more reticent about the notion that Indonesia might facilitate a resolution in ASEAN dialogue to the South China Sea disputes, claiming: “that is a problem for other countries.”

Instead, Jokowi emphasizes the idea of Indonesia as a “global maritime fulcrum” and seeks to strengthen bilateral ties with other states in the Indian Ocean, such as India and South Africa. Rather than lacking interest in foreign policy, Jokowi is forging his own path. This raises concerns for the future of ASEAN, but it is not yet clear whether it is particularly problematic for Indonesia.

Dr. Avery Poole is a Lecturer in International Relations in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. This piece was first published on the Indonesia at Melbourne blog