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, 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.
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.