Commentary: One Year On, Jokowi's Foreign Policy Still Lacks Purpose


OCTOBER 13, 2015

This month marks the end of the Joko Widodo-Jusuf Kalla administration's first year in office, which is a good moment to examine the effectiveness of the president's policies. Joko's foreign policy plans -- supposedly guided by his vision of Indonesia's role as a 'Global Maritime Axis' -- had been particularly promising, but what has happened to them?

In his inauguration address last year, Joko stated that Indonesia, as the third-most populous democracy, the most populous Muslim-majority country and the largest economy in Southeast Asia, would keep pursuing the “free and active” foreign policy of old, but backed by stronger defensive capabilities.

Specifically, he stressed the importance of his so-called Nawa Cita program, which also included calls to build up a credible national security and defense infrastructure. He also mentioned the importance of modernizing the Indonesian Military (TNI)'s outdated equipment and the need to strengthen the national defense industry.

Apart from this, the president from the start has been clamoring to attract foreign investment. During his first foreign trip -- to Beijing, Naypyidaw and Brisbane -- he was touting Indonesia’s potential in this regard and he also instructed Indonesian diplomats to spend more time on “economic diplomacy,” to promote the country's products abroad.

One year on, however, the government still hasn't developed a comprehensive strategy on how to achieve these goals and instead has ended up jumping from issue to the other.

'Shock therapy'

There seems to be a lack of focus in Joko's administration regarding foreign policy, which seems to be taking a backseat to domestic considerations. And considering the fact that president himself often mentions the importance of Indonesia in regional and global politics, it is interesting that the administration often seems to get caught off guard by vehement international reactions to its own policies.

Take for instance Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti’s “shock therapy." She ordered the Navy to blow up foreign boats suspected of conducting illegal fishing activities in Indonesian waters. Domestically, this is wildly popular and seen as a sign that Indonesia finally got its act together in reclaiming maritime sovereignty.

At the same time, the move has shocked Indonesia's neighbors, notably fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, who were used to the relaxed attitude of Indonesian officials in previous administrations. Some are now warning that this policy threatens the development of a closer-knit Asean community. Even China expressed its concerns over this issue, though not very strongly, most likely because it is valuing its current relationship with Indonesia too much.

What is clear, however, is that everybody is paying attention -- in that sense the "shock therapy" has worked. Yet the government seems unable to use this opportunity to craft a long-term solution. It would be very beneficial for Indonesia to team up with other nations, especially fellow Asean members and even China, India and Japan, to push for a comprehensive agreement to fight illegal fishing and to promote sustainable fishery practices, while cementing Indonesia’s status as the natural leader of the Southeast Asia region.

Such an agreement would help Indonesia in protecting its maritime resources from poachers, allowing Indonesian fishermen to prosper, while at the same time helping Indonesia economically through fees and profit-sharing agreements from fishing permits.

Profits from such a scheme could be allocated for research and development in maritime affairs -- as Indonesia currently only spends less than 1 percent of its budgets on R&D, with only a sliver of that going to the maritime sector. Considering the fact that Indonesia is an archipelagic state with huge maritime assets, this is a remarkable state of affairs.

Drugs and executions

Another example of the government being caught off guard by international reactions was the execution of drug convicts. Fourteen people have been killed this year, including 12 foreign nationals.

Drug smuggling and distribution -- especially to minors -- are very serious offenses and Joko's administration has the duty to clamp down on drug abuse in Indonesia. These convicts were warned that they were gambling with their lives by bringing drugs to Indonesia.

At the same time, however, by simply executing the drug convicts, Joko was giving up bargaining chips he could have used to pressure those nations whose citizens were on death row -- for instance to help Indonesia to rescue its own nationals facing the death penalty in the Middle East. The president, instead of skillfully using this issue for the nation's benefit, kept stubbornly framing the whole affair as the only way for Indonesia to deal with its drug problems.

Moreover, by executing these people instead of letting them spend their lives in prison without any chance of parole, Indonesia gained nothing but the wrath of other nations. Australia, Brazil and the Netherlands withdrew their ambassadors, and France was threatening to do the same, with additional threats to review its agreement to invest in Indonesia and to put up additional roadblocks to Indonesian exports, had its citizen, Serge Atlaoui, been executed.

The whole affair was a major distraction, with precious time wasted that could have been used to make trade deals or help Indonesians in trouble abroad.

Ad-hoc policy-making

After one year in office, it seems ironic that the Joko administration hasn't paid that much attention to its foreign policy. In fact, the administration seems to be lacking in long-term strategy, and many decisions seem to have been taken without proper consideration of their international implications.

Considering the promise of a Global Maritime Axis and the fact that Indonesia indeed occupies a very important geostrategic space at a time when the world is witnessing a shift to a "Pacific Century" and growing economic and political importance of this region, the foreign policy accomplishments of Joko's administration so far have been underwhelming.

Indonesia could play a much more important role in the region and beyond, but for that to happen the president and his aides should craft coherent and persuasive long-term strategies. Taking the nation's foreign relations seriously would be good start.

Asrudin Azwar is an international relations analyst from the Asrudian Center. Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer in international politics at the National Defense University (Unhan).