Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

Balancing ASEAN, the U.S. and China: Indonesia's Bebas- Aktif Foreign Policy in the 21st Century

Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

Balancing ASEAN, the U.S. and China: Indonesia's Bebas- Aktif Foreign Policy in the 21st Century

Article excerpt


At the beginning of the 21st century, Indonesia was still in a period of transformation from an authoritarian to a democratic state. The weaknesses of political and economic structures hinder the country's development. During the tenure of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's (popularly named SBY), which began in 2004, Indonesia's young democracy has become stronger and its economic potential has begun to be tapped. This has prompted the country's growing capacity and willingness to play an active role in international politics, mostly regionally, but also with considerable moves having been made on the global stage (for example, joining the G20 forum). Indonesia's approach to changing international conditions is driven by the bebas-aktif (free and active) principle, which has been at the core of Indonesian foreign policy for more than six decades.

This paper examines the historical background of the bebas-aktif principle and how Indonesian foreign policy has been conducted in the 21st century, especially during SBY's tenure, given the main elements of the bebas-aktif doctrine. It is focused on Indonesian relations with two main regional powers, China and the United States, the activities of which are crucial for the situation in Southeast Asia. Attention is also paid to ASEAN, which could be perceived as a vital element of the bebas-aktif principle regarding the regional politics.

What Is the Bebas-aktif Principle?

Since Indonesia's independence in 1945,1 sovereignty and territorial integrity have been crucial issues in domestic as well as foreign policy. As Winfried Weck indicates, this approach is also an inherent feature of the nation's self-identity. Indonesia's authorities "have always considered the country's political independence as the most important way of protecting this integrity."2 The young country was looking for a strategy that could help to achieve the abovementioned goals and protect Indonesia's interests on the international stage. Vice-president Mohammad Hatta, in his speech of 2 September 1948, determined Indonesia's situation in face of Cold War rivalry as "rowing between two reefs," which symbolised the main political blocs of capitalist and communist states. Hatta stated that, regarding international relations, Indonesia should pursue a bebas-aktif (independent and active) policy, based on the Panchasila3 guidelines. Since that time, the policy has been the leading principle driving Indonesian foreign policy, and it can still be perceived as the most important tenet in this field.4

Hatta explained his view on the fundamentals of bebas-aktif in his articles from 1950. He stated that the country's foreign policy was "independent because Indonesia does not wish to align herself with either of the opposition blocs, the Western bloc or the Communist bloc; active because it actively carries out a peaceful policy as a loyal member of the United Nations." Moreover, Hatta added, "by practising her independent and active policy Indonesia endeavours to seek friendship with all nations- whatever their ideology or form of government-upon a basis of mutual respect."5 As we see, the main aim of bebas-aktif was to allow Indonesia to pursue an independent foreign policy without taking part in regional or global geopolitical and ideological rivalry, and to be active in the multilateral forums that could bolster Indonesia's international position.6 Additionally, the stability of Indonesia's immediate surroundings, especially Southeast Asia, was perceived as indispensible to country's security and its further development. Therefore, interference in regional issues by external powers was regarded as an active threat to Indonesian sovereignty.

During the Cold War, the bebas-aktif policy aimed to keep Indonesia at a distance from external powers such as the United States, the USSR and China, and to prevent them from interfering in Southeast Asian issues. Moreover, in order to play active role on the international scene, Indonesia engaged in the creation of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) and supported developing countries, mainly in Africa and Asia. …

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