Where is ASEAN in Indonesia’s Foreign Policy? Jokowi after Two Years


Ahmad Rizky M. Umar

Research Associate at ASEAN Studies Center UGM

Under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Indonesia appears less oriented toward the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Earlier in 2014, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi embraced several new ideas on how Indonesia’s foreign policy will be directed under her leadership, which is now popular as “Pro-People” Foreign policy. Recent developments showed some moves in Indonesia’s foreign policy to promote bilateral diplomacy rather than multilateralism, strengthening ties with China, and reluctance to take lead in the emerging South China Sea.

Is this a signal that Jokowi is now on his way to abandon “ASEAN-Centrality” and move to a “Post-ASEAN” regional policy?  What do these developments imply to regional politics in Southeast Asia?

ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Gadjah Mada organised a forum to discuss these questions with two distinguished speakers: Dr Avery Poole (Lecturer at University of Melbourne) and Mr Zain Maulana (PhD Candidate at University of Leeds) in Friday, 11 November 2016, 1.30-3.00 p.m. This forum was moderated by Mr Ahmad Rizky M Umar (Research Associate at the ASEAN Studies Center UGM). From two different perspectives,  this discussion attempts to unpack why Indonesia tend to move from ASEAN to a broader perspective of regional order in Southeast Asia (see Sukma, 2016).

The Changing Regional Order

Dr Avery Poole began her presentation by raising a question: is Indonesia a ‘natural leader’ in ASEAN, as reflected through ‘ASEAN-centrality’ doctrine during Yudhoyono’s presidency? Or, in contrast, should Indonesia put forward a ‘post-ASEAN’ foreign policy, as noted by several analysts?

Indonesia is, until present, still considered as one of the main force in ASEAN, given a huge population and geopolitical position. This strategic position has unambiguously put Indonesia at centre of regional politics. Indonesia has played a significant role, for example, in mainstreaming and institutionalising Human Rights in the region, during Hassan Wirajuda’s tenure as Foreign Minister. Moreover, Indonesia has also been at the centre of the establishment of ASEAN Community, which was declared in Bali at 2003.

However, we should also take into account recent growing tension in Southeast Asia, particularly in the South China Sea. Several headlines have noted that Indonesia has not played any prominent rule in mediating the conflict, while several other points to Indonesia’s lack of leadership in ASEAN, particularly during the conflict. Indonesia’s reluctance could be understood as an attempt to manage regional order, which is vulnerable to tension not only with external forces (such as China, India, or the US), but also between its member states.

Indonesia has therefore faced a dilemma, whether to take role in mediating any conflict in a changing regional order, or instead retreat to defend the ‘national interest’. Jokowi seems to opt for the second choice. But we should also consider that ASEAN Summit, whatever result it has produced, should not be considered as the only measurement to understand foreign policy outcomes and multilateral arrangements. As Evan Laksmana has aptly noted, it is how to transform and leverage those meetings into concrete strategic outcomes that matters in understanding regional order.

Thus, it is important to continuously re-assess Indonesia’s foreign policy not only by rhetorics, but also by any concrete effort to transform statement into policies. It is clear that Indonesia has not retreat from ASEAN, but instead adapting to the changing regional order. The way Indonesia project their interest in ASEAN, therefore, should be understood in the complex relationship between national interest, changing geopolitical order, and institutional arrangement within ASEAN itself, particularly in relations to the recently-established ASEAN Community.

Explaining Shifts

If Indonesia does not ‘retreat’ from ASEAN, then what role does Indonesia currently play in ASEAN? According to Zain Maulana, Indonesia is now shifting from being a ‘norm entrepreneur’ in ASEAN, as arguably exercised by previous Yudhoyono’s administration, to a more ‘investment-friendly’ foreign policy. The result is ‘frank diplomacy’, in which Jokowi tend to use a more informal meeting to exercise foreign policy rather than formal multilateral arrangement.

The shift was occurred due to three main reasons. First, Jokowi faced different social and political context with Yudhoyono, which witnessed the changing regional and world order in international level. In domestic level, Jokowi also needs to maintain legitimacy from various political forces around his power. Second, both Jokowi and Yudhoyono have different experiences, backgropund, and characteristics, which makes their approaches to international politics differs each other. Third, Jokowi and Yudhoyono have different policy orientations in addressing international politics, which distinguish their approaches to ASEAN.

However, several opinions that put Jokowi’s foreign policy as ‘backward-looking’, and contrasting it with Yudhoyono’s foreign policy, is misleading. In fact, international politics is highly interconnected and is currently multipolar. Consequently, one should understand Indonesia’s foreign policy by placing it under particular structural setting in international politics.

Indonesia is not turning his back from ASEAN. Rather, Indonesia is not necessarily interested to take lead as “norm entrepreneur”and instead seeking a broader form of cooperation. As Rizal Sukma has recently argued, Indonesia place ASEAN as one of several order’ in Southeast Asia, while actively seeking and constructively engaging in broader initiatives in regional politics. It therefore seeks to cooperate with other actors in the dynamic regional politics.

Indonesia, however, could not avoid ASEAN in their foreign policy, since ASEAN is geopolitically strategic and important for the articulation of Indonesia’s national interest. What Indonesia needs to do is seeking recognition and legitimacy among ASEAN member states. Indonesia therefore needs to consider ASEAN as a venue to negotiate their interest and, at the same time, contribute to maintain order through institutional mechanism. It therefore requires a more concrete foreign policy orientation towards ASEAN.