What is Indonesia’s vision for the international order?

As an emerging Asian middle power, Indonesia’s notion of international order is based on a commitment to democracy and a desire for autonomy in international politics.

Interview
5 minute READ

Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar

Associate Lecturer, School of Political Sciences and International Studies, University of Queensland

Drawing on his article in International Affairs, Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar speaks to Rheea Saggar about Indonesia’s vision for, and contribution to, the international order amid growing US-China competition.

What position does Indonesia occupy in the Asia-Pacific region?

Since declaring independence in 1945, Indonesia has envisioned itself as a major regional actor. Indonesia organized the Asian-African (Bandung) Conference in 1955 and advocated for decolonization at the 1960 UN General Assembly session. In the 1960s, it helped establish the Non-Aligned Movement and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Since the Cold War, Indonesia has consistently engaged with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), transformed ASEAN, and become a well-known promoter of human rights and democracy in the region. These active engagements illustrate its aspirations to maintain regional stability and peace and play a constructive role in international institutions.

What is Indonesia’s vision for the global order?

Indonesia envisions a global order that defends the rights of small and middle powers to freely determine their actions without external interference.

Indonesia envisions a global order that defends the rights of small and middle powers to freely determine their actions without external interference, as originally outlined by Indonesia’s first vice president, Mohammad Hatta, in the 1950s.

Indonesia’s vision for a peaceful international order has three key elements. First, all states must be respected as sovereign and fully independent. Secondly, all states must be equal under international law. Finally, states should be able to peacefully resolve conflict through multilateral and international cooperation. Strong regional and global institutions are therefore crucial.

Since 1998, Indonesia has carried out a series of democratic reforms, including professionalization of the military, stronger laws to eradicate corruption, limiting presidential period to a maximum of 10 years, and reforming legislative and executive institutions. These reforms have shaped its visions of the global order. While former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-14) envisioned an order where Western and non-Western democracies are equals, current President Joko Widodo also advocates equitable development for all countries.

How has Indonesia’s foreign policy changed under the presidency of Joko Widodo?

There have been two major shifts in Indonesia’s foreign policy. The first is priorities. Former president Yudhoyono’s foreign policy priorities were to strengthen Indonesia’s democracy and restore its standing in international institutions. To do so, he branded the country as ‘a model of Muslim democracy’ and even initiated the Bali Democracy Forum.

Widodo has different priorities. He seeks a foreign policy that drives Indonesia’s ambitious development projects, including capital relocation, infrastructure development and connectivity projects, especially in eastern Indonesia. His foreign policy has focused more on democracy’s potential benefits for economic development.

The second change relates to engagement with great powers, particularly China and the US. Under Yudhoyono, Indonesia engaged more closely with the US and other members of the liberal international order.

President Widodo meanwhile takes a critical stance towards the US and criticises the failure of Western countries to reduce global inequalities and deliver development to the Global South. Widodo has also strengthened Indonesia’s cooperation with countries outside the liberal international order, such as China, to obtain more economic benefits.

Do other ASEAN states support Indonesia’s democratic vision for the global order?

Fellow ASEAN member states have supported Indonesia’s various initiatives to project democracy, particularly within ASEAN itself. Indonesia played an instrumental role in crafting the ASEAN Charter and including democracy and human rights as key principles within it. Indonesia also led the establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), which promotes human rights protection in the region, and is currently leading efforts to restore democracy in Myanmar through the five-point consensus.

Indonesia’s regional engagement manages to articulate ideas of democracy and human rights without interfering in the sovereignty of other countries.

But ASEAN members’ support for democratization of ASEAN does not necessarily mean that they accept human rights and democracy within their own countries. In fact, Indonesia has never attempted to project democracy to other countries. Its regional engagement manages to articulate ideas of democracy and human rights without interfering in the sovereignty of other countries. This approach differs from Western democracy promotion that uses economic and security instruments often at odds with the sovereignty of Asian countries. This respect of sovereignty has ensured regional support for Indonesia’s democratic vision of the regional and global order.

What is the biggest challenge Indonesia faces in international politics?

Its biggest challenge is the increasing geopolitical tension between the US and China. This tension has led to increasing disunity among ASEAN member states on several key regional issues. For example, ASEAN does not have a unified stance on AUKUS or the South China Sea dispute, which could threaten its credibility outside the region.

In domestic politics too, Indonesian policymakers are divided in their responses to China. This is particularly important as the country is a large recipient of funding from China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

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While historically, various Indonesian governments have adhered to the principle of non-alignment to navigate geopolitical tensions – especially during the Cold War – Indonesia now emphasizes the centrality of ASEAN and multilateral institutions, such as the G20 and the UN, to navigate great power competition. As witnessed during last year’s G20 summit, Indonesia provided an avenue for US and China leaders to meet and opportunities to mediate their rivalry. This is a strategic role for Indonesia to play as an Asian middle power, without necessarily aligning itself with either side.

What is a common misconception about Indonesia’s place in global politics?

Experts often view Indonesia simply through the lens of great power politics. For example, Indonesia’s increasing engagement with China is often narrowly viewed as a sign of their close relationship. This view fails to account for Indonesia’s conception of international order, its long-standing principle of having an independent and active foreign policy, and commitment to multilateralism. It also limits our understanding what Indonesia actually wants from the international order.

Indonesia shows us that while middle powers may not hold as much military and economic prowess as the great powers, they can influence global politics through other, compelling means.

Scholars also often dismiss the capability of Asian middle powers like Indonesia to influence global politics. Yet, as the recent G20 summit demonstrated, Indonesia was able to strategically use regional and international institutions to mediate great powers. In short, Indonesia shows us that while middle powers may not hold as much military and economic prowess as the great powers, they can certainly influence global politics through other, compelling means.

How do you envision Indonesia’s global role in the future? Will it succeed in achieving greater international representation for non-Western middle powers?

Indonesia could play a greater global role in the future, but this depends on how its future leaders shape its foreign policy. Widodo will step down in 2024 and Indonesians will vote for a new president.

The new president will need to navigate increasing tensions in the Indo-Pacific region and maintain regional order. There are also non-traditional security challenges, like climate change, energy security, and global health issues. Tackling these challenges requires not only leadership but also creative foreign policy strategies.

Indonesia can leverage its regional credibility and resources to persuade opposing forces in Myanmar to hold peace talks.

I think Indonesia’s success in achieving greater international representation for non-Western middle powers will depend on what issues it raises and how it engages with other countries. To maintain order and unity among ASEAN member states amid increasing US-China rivalry, Indonesia needs to assert stronger leadership within ASEAN and resolve intra-regional issues, particularly the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. For example, Indonesia can leverage its regional credibility and resources to persuade opposing forces in Myanmar to hold peace talks, especially the junta. The ASEAN Regional Forum could be used as a venue for ASEAN’s dialogue partners, including the US and China, to talk and ease diplomatic tensions in Myanmar.

Beyond Southeast Asia, Indonesia needs to deepen engagement with other small and middle powers by establishing common ground in international institutions, particularly the UN. One example is Indonesia’s active campaign to anticipate and prepare for future global health crises. It jointly launched the pandemic fund during the latest G20 summit, currently housed by the World Bank. Indonesia can embrace similar initiatives in the future and collaborate with other middle powers like United Arab Emirates, India, Japan and Canada. Such initiatives could become increasingly crucial to ease great power tensions and address security issues concerning small and middle powers.

Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar’s article ‘The rise of the Asian middle powers: Indonesia’s conceptions of international order’ is published in the July 2023 issue of International Affairs.