Behind Indonesia’s ambivalence in the South China Sea

The push of domestic politics

Muhamad Arif

Government and governance, International relations, National security, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia

15 August 2016

With so much at stake why does Indonesia’s policy position on the South China Sea seem so ambivalent? Muhamad Arif looks at the domestic factors in play.

Under President Joko Widodo – commonly known as Jokowi – Indonesian foreign and security policy has been notable for its ambivalence when it comes to dealing with the rise of China and the South China Sea issue. Growing assertiveness towards maintaining territorial integrity, as seen in Indonesia’s ongoing defence modernisation project and new approach to military deployment, as well as its firm approach to law enforcement when dealing with illegal Chinese activities in Indonesian waters, has been coupled with caution to reign in this assertiveness  before it reaches the point of endangering Indonesia’s cordial economic relationship with Beijing.

Understanding this ambivalent behaviour requires a closer look at the interventionist role of Indonesian domestic politics in shaping the substance, and determining the timing, of its foreign and security policy.

International systemic factors primarily drive states’ behaviour. The shifting balance of power in the region, following the economic and military rise of China and its expanding power projection in the South China Sea, requires a response from Indonesia. The geography that places Indonesia right at the crossroads of major powers’ interests also requires it to pay great attention to regional security. While promising Indonesia economic benefits, this very same geographic reality also exposes the country to harmful external influences. This threat perception of potential external powers’ hidden intrusion is still apparent today.

In addition to these systemic pressures, states’ internal characteristics significantly shape and determine specific foreign and security policy, and the timing of its release. In the same way Konfrontasi was about Soekarno’s anti-colonialism, and the annexation of East Timor was about Orde Baru’s fear of communism and Soeharto’s adherence to Javanese culture (indeed, his gradual approach to annexation resembles Javanese teachings in dealing with enemies), the ambivalent nature of Indonesia’s recent policies in the South China Sea must be seen through the lens of a domestic political framework. Added to this must be an appreciation of the complex interplay of different domestic actors, and their respective parochial interests, involved in foreign and security policy-making.

Two factors have played an important role in this regard. First, the maintenance of territorial integrity is a specific focus of Jokowi’s presidency, and one he is very serious about – it was, after all, part of his campaign manifesto to guarantee the stronger presence of state in all areas of nationhood and citizenship. Hence we are witnessing the acceleration of defence modernisation and a new outward-looking approach to military deployment that sees the armed forces’ most sophisticated weapon systems deployed in the previously overlooked western area of the country.

More on this: Challenging sovereignty at sea | Koh Swee Lean Collin

The hardened stance on the maintenance of territorial integrity also manifests in  the ‘sink the vessels’ policy. When Chinese fishermen and coast guard vessels intruded into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the Natuna Islands, it struck right at the heart of the most fundamental guiding principle of Jokowi’s presidency. He simply could not afford to be soft. The assertive part of Indonesian policy in the South China Sea has to be understood within this context.

Jokowi, however, cannot launch an all-out offensive against China in defence of Indonesia’s sovereign rights. Instead, he must balance national security concerns with economic ones. Like other contemporary Southeast Asian leaders, Jokowi derives his source of legitimacy largely from the country’s economic performance and development, particularly infrastructure development and the eradication of poverty. Hence he has been busy building infrastructure, developing the maritime economy and maintaining the country’s fiscal and monetary health.

In light of Indonesia’s need for foreign investment to fund expensive domestic infrastructure projects, Jokowi thus needs to preserve a cordial relationship with Beijing. Indonesia could benefit significantly from the convergence of interests between Jokowi’s domestic demand for infrastructure and economic development and China’s long term projects such as the One Belt One Road initiative.

Furthermore, an alienated China is not in Jokowi’s interest. Provoking China and prompting it to act more aggressively would escalate tension in the region and be detrimental to Jokowi’s domestic economic development agenda. Indonesia’s anxiety towards a more active US presence in the region, and its (much-criticised) reluctance to take on the leadership of ASEAN – leadership the organisation badly needs if it is to stand firm against China – should be seen in this context. It is in Indonesia’s longer-term interests, after all, to strike a balance between major powers’ interests in the region.

Maintaining regional security and territorial integrity have been Indonesia’s core strategic interests since the earliest days of the republic. Different administrations, with their varied political structures and dynamics have however, manifested these interests in different ways. Jokowi has made protecting these interests a key plank of his presidency, a fact that cannot be overlooked in the troubled waters of Indonesian policy towards China and the South China Sea.

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One Response

  1. Mary says:

    In short, toward China Indonesia behaves like the 7-millions nation of Laos and strong stand of sinking everyone-else-boats-but-Chinese looks like it comes from the bully play book of the 1.5-billion nation of China. Good Jakowi policy!

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Arif, Muhamad. 2016. "Behind Indonesia’S Ambivalence In The South China Sea - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/behind-indonesias-ambivalence-south-china-sea/.

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