Indonesia’s Foreign Policy Under Widodo


Photo source: The New York Times

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

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 for Muslim democracy’, and even initiated the Bali Democracy Forum.

Widodo, in contrast, 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 has taken a critical stance towards the US and criticised 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.

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 the democratisation 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.

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.

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 of what Indonesia actually wants from the international order.

Scholars also often dismiss the capability of Asian middle powers, like Indonesia, in influencing 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.

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.

However, 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’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. Such initiatives could become increasingly crucial to ease great power tensions and address security issues concerning small and middle powers.


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