Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Sovereignty and the Sea: President Joko Widodo's Foreign Policy Challenges

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Sovereignty and the Sea: President Joko Widodo's Foreign Policy Challenges

Article excerpt

New Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who prefers to be known by the portmanteau Jokowi, (1) has declared that he will focus on domestic affairs, particularly improving the country's maritime infrastructure and reasserting the authority of the state, as part of a broad reform programme. In these areas, he could be a transformative president. However, an activist presidency in these areas, even if intended only as a domestic effort, will create unintended foreign policy challenges for Indonesia, because its economic and maritime interests are so closely intertwined with those of its neighbours. Moreover, Jokowi's focus on domestic policy will likely see him delegate management of foreign affairs, including responsibility for addressing these challenges, to several key advisers. Where consensus among these advisers does not emerge, Jokowi is unlikely to intervene to settle the debate and to clarify Indonesia's position, as his predecessor, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, often did when confronted with similar challenges.

This article first outlines the role that President Yudhoyono played in the conduct of the country's foreign policy in order to illustrate the change in experience and focus that Jokowi represents. Second, it reviews Jokowi's statements on foreign affairs and argues that his views on Indonesia's external relations are almost entirely a function of his domestic reform agenda, which emphasizes state strength and maritime affairs. Third, it identifies the key people providing advice to Jokowi on foreign policy, and how they might influence his views. Finally, it explores how this context might affect the conduct of Indonesian foreign policy in Southeast Asia and the broader Asia-Pacific region, highlighting the dilemma of the Indonesian position in the South China Sea. I argue throughout that Jokowi's focus on maritime affairs and questions of state sovereignty could lead to greater tensions with neighbouring states and China; and that his inexperience in foreign affairs could allow these tensions to persist in a way they did not under his predecessor, thus diminishing Indonesia's regional leadership role.

Yudhoyono's Departure Leaves a Void

When President Yudhoyono vacated the State Palace in October 2014, he left a void in the country's foreign policymaking system. As president, Yudhoyono energetically pursued a vision of Indonesia's place in the world as a rising power, and of himself as a globe-trotting statesman respected and admired by his peers. In his pursuit of this vision, he took great care to cultivate opinion abroad, while minimizing the opportunity for institutional competition over foreign policy among his ministries at home.

The presidency was not Yudhoyono's first turn at foreign policy. Throughout his long army career, Yudhoyono demonstrated a keen interest in foreign affairs. Early in his presidency, as he strove to position himself as an international statesman and foreign policy intellectual, he adopted and promoted a foreign policy vision defined by the country's identity as a large Muslim majority democracy. (2) By the start of his second term, he had refined his view of Indonesia's place in the international system as a country with "a thousand friends and zero enemies" and an "all directions foreign policy". (3) He sought to improve ties with both the United States and China, but also made a show of diplomacy with Iran and North Korea. (4) He pursued warmer relations with neighbouring countries, including Australia, Singapore and Malaysia, resisting demands from the bureaucracy and legislature that he take a harder line in various disputes. (5)

In implementing his foreign policy agenda, Yudhoyono continued institutional reforms begun by his predecessor, Megawati Sukarnoputri, that consolidated foreign policymaking in the foreign ministry and the State Palace, thereby limiting institutional competition over foreign policy between various ministries. …

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