At a time when the concept of strategic autonomy is debated, and countries are forced to choose between the powers at play in the Indo Pacific, a country that was big on the idea of non-alignment, has once again assumed the role of a ‘silent leader’ in the region. Indonesia hosted the first all-inclusive High-Level Dialogue on Indo Pacific Co-operation (HLD-IPC) in March this year, which was attended by eighteen countries in the region, including the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its eight dialogue partners. With discussions on a wide array of issues ranging from maritime security to infrastructure and connectivity, the HLD-IPC was one of the many elaborate efforts by Indonesia to initiate a dialogue towards concrete co-operation in the Indo Pacific while maintaining ASEAN’s centrality amidst it. Other Indonesian initiatives include the Indonesia-South Pacific Forum and Indo-Pacific Maritime Dialogue to further expand and strengthen regional co-operation. Indonesia has time and again been vocal, about the importance of regional forums such as ASEAN and East Asia Summit taking a more proactive role to protect the security interests of the countries in the Indo Pacific amidst the Sino-American rivalry.
It was also in this context that the 34th ASEAN Summit held at Bangkok last month, witnessed the coming together of its ten member states to adopt the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo Pacific,’ a document proposed by Indonesia that outlined the ASEAN concept of Indo Pacific, further highlighting its significance. At the Summit, Indonesian President Joko Widodo in his statement said that the Outlook was all the more crucial at this juncture, as the ongoing trade war between the US and China was intensifying, leading to a ‘multi-front war’ which would affect the stability of the region.
While pushing for regional co-operation, Indonesia has upped its own foreign policy game in the recent past by being both active and strategic, considering its geographic location as a ‘maritime fulcrum,’ especially concerning its relations with the two big powers in the region.
The year 2019 marks 70 years of diplomatic ties between the US and Indonesia. Ever since, the relations between the two countries have come a long way with the US recognizing Indonesia to be a crucial player in South East Asia. The defense ties between the two countries have progressed in the past couple of years with the US now being a major military hardware supplier. Former Acting US Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan’s recent visit to Indonesia led to the normalizing of relations with KOPASSUS, Indonesia’s Special Forces, with the announcement of combined military exercise training between the countries from 2020. It was in 2010 that the Bush administration lifted the ban placed on the KOPASSUS, for their involvement in several human rights abuses in East Timor in the 1990s. Though still in its planning stages, the military exercises are expected to be held for four to six weeks, with a focus on crisis response, hostage rescue, etc. according to a Pentagon spokesperson. Yet another initiative that was discussed was enhancing information sharing with regard to the Indonesian led Association of South East Asian Nations out Eyes (AOE) platform, which enables the exchange of intelligence on terrorism and extremism.
When it comes to its relationship with China, the Widodo administration’s renaming of the northern parts of their exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea to North Natuna Sea, was seen as an act of defiance to the Chinese territorial aggression. While on the economic front, 23 Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) were signed between the two countries in April this year, for investments worth $14.2 billion. Indonesia’s game plan has been to utilize China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to its own advantage, for financial investments and large scale infrastructural development within the country. The BRI initiative now makes China one of the top five investors in the country. Although with Indonesian unemployment rates on the rise, the influx of Chinese workers into the country for these BRI projects has heightened the already existing issue of anti-Chinese sentiments amongst the public.
IR experts across the spectrum have begun to acknowledge Indonesia as a middle power in the region. Middle powers are known to ‘act as catalysts of new initiatives, facilitators of coalitions in support of existing initiatives and agenda setting, and as managers of extant institutions,’ and therefore play a crucial role in maintaining a certain balance in the region. While Indonesia strives for regional unity, it has been venturing out on its own to create a niche for itself and has also been playing its cards with powers such as China and the US rather meticulously. With Mr. Widodo having won the elections in June again, it will be interesting to see the new plan of action set out for Indonesia in his new term.
*** The author is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***