Indonesia is currently the world’s 16th-largest economy by GDP, and is predicted to become the seventh largest by 2030. Many have billed Indonesia as ‘a rising middle power’ — but how will, and should, Indonesia’s (perceived) rise impact on its foreign policy posture?Amid the global financial crisis, the World Bank projects that Indonesia’s economy will grow by 6.6 per cent in 2013, better than many other emerging powers. The IMF has cut its growth prediction for Brazil from 4.6 per cent to 4.0 per cent, while Moody’s Analytics places India’s GDP growth rate at 6.0 per cent. Indonesia has also gained a prominent position in the global diplomatic arena in recent years by becoming a member of the G20 and by co-chairing the UN High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Indonesia is clearly more than just ‘a fractured belt of comets orbiting China’, as erroneously suggested by Parag Khanna.
Still, the nature and style of Indonesian foreign policy differs from other emerging powers. The BRICS are more assertive and tend to be revisionists of the global status quo. Brazil, India and South Africa, for instance, consistently ask for permanent seats at the UN Security Council.
In the area of development cooperation, most emerging powers already have official development assistance (ODA) agencies. India inaugurated its Development Partnership Administration last year, while Brazil and South Africa set up similar bodies a few years ago. BRICS nations also agreed on a plan to set up a development bank at the 2012 BRICS Summit in New Delhi. The bank is intended to provide a sort of an antithesis to traditional donor schemes, which are dominated by OECD nations. Indonesia, on the other hand, does not yet have an ODA body, and in the short run it will not follow the BRICS path to expand its strategic influence by providing aid to less-developed nations. Indonesia has interminable development problems within its own country, such as high poverty rates, increasing income inequality and rampant corruption, which could constrain an assertive foreign policy. But why do India, South Africa and even China — which are subject to the same, or perhaps even more serious, domestic pressures — confidently pursue more aggressive, coercive foreign policies?
Foreign policy is greatly influenced by the complex combination of state capacity, domestic politics, values and identity. On the issue of state capacity, Indonesia does not have absolute advantages over its Southeast Asian neighbours. Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are economically more advanced than Indonesia. It also does not have military superiority over the region. These situations are much different from other emerging powers which are far more dominant than their peers in their respective regions. Brazil, for instance, is an undebatable economic, military and political powerhouse in South America.
Regarding political value, Indonesia chooses to respect regional norms that prioritise peace and stability as the basis for achieving common prosperity. This stance is different from India’s arms race with Pakistan or China’s firm behaviour toward its neighbours on territorial disputes. It is true that Indonesia initiated some interventionist proposals in ASEAN, such as the establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, but Indonesia also compromises very much for the sake of solidarity.
Considering the difficulty involved in radically changing the nature of its foreign policy, I would argue that although there is no need to relinquish its commitment to ASEAN and redirect its foreign policy contribution to a wider range of global issues, Indonesia has to strengthen its regional leadership in Southeast Asia. Indonesia’s rise should go beyond the normal assumption that it is primus inter pares (first among equals) in the region.
Indonesia needs to focus on developing a more substantive, rather than abstract, leadership position in the region. For this reason, significantly enhancing its bilateral relations with other Southeast Asian nations is pivotal. Business players, in particular, should be encouraged to expand their economic activities in other Southeast Asian nations. For years, Indonesia has devoted much political and diplomatic energy to resolving conflicts in Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, but it has not reaped any great economic benefit from those countries once the conflicts ended. Indonesia’s investment in Myanmar, for instance, is much smaller than investments by Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, despite Indonesia’s important diplomatic engagement in helping to open up the country. Similarly, there is no direct Jakarta–Phnom Penh flight even though Indonesia established outstanding diplomatic credentials in Cambodia during the crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.
Indonesia should also send more people, especially students, to learn about the cultures and languages of other Southeast Asian countries. These efforts could be supported by government funding, and would be crucial to strengthening long-term emotional and intellectual bonds between Indonesians and their fellow Southeast Asians. For strategic purposes, Indonesia also needs to establish more institutes dedicated to Southeast Asian studies. Institutes or centres related to international affairs could potentially encourage Indonesians to develop a more outward-looking mindset, which is critical to bridging gaps between foreign policy and domestic aspirations.
Indonesia’s new status as an emerging middle power provides it with a greater range of foreign policy alternatives. Re-evaluating Southeast Asia as a strategic and more substantive partner could be the most beneficial option.
Awidya Santikajaya is a PhD student at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, the Australian National University.
A version of this article first appeared in The Jakarta Post