Indonesia, Australia and the coming Trump challenge

Image courtesy of Flickr user Swaradila Weesy.

Much of the speculation about the implications of a Trump presidency for Asia suggest at least some degree of US retrenchment from the region. Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans captured that pervasive sense of unease in The Strategist. Australia ‘could no longer take coherent, smart American leadership for granted’, he argued. We should ‘assign much higher priority to building closer trade and security ties with Japan, South Korea and India, and especially Indonesia our huge near-neighbour.’

But how much can Australia realistically expect of Indonesia right now? With the uncertainties posed by the election of Donald Trump and Beijing’s divide et empera strategy with ASEAN states on the South China Sea proving increasingly effective, rarely has there been a time where Indonesia’s leadership in Southeast Asia has been so critical to managing tensions and the underlying flux in the regional distribution of power.

The problem is that Indonesia’s enduring de facto leadership of ASEAN, critical to the organisation’s ability to forge a consensus on South China Sea issues and moderate Chinese influence, appears to be on the wane.

More broadly, some of the core principles of Indonesia’s foreign policy seem to have weakened under the Jokowi government. Diplomacy is now more concentrated on Indonesia’s economic development and infrastructure priorities, and as a result, it’s more transactional in nature. Less obvious is Indonesia’s strong normative leadership and activism in Southeast Asia, a characteristic of the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presidency.

There’s no doubt the tensions surrounding China’s expansive South China Sea claims present a pressing policy dilemma for Indonesia. China’s intrusions into Indonesia’s territorial waters around the Natuna islands are an obvious threat to national security, just as they are to regional stability. And that all takes place amidst the broader challenge for Indonesia’s bilateral relationship with China—preserving a harmonious relationship that will continue to facilitate significant Chinese FDI and trade flows.

As a non-claimant state and honest broker in Southeast Asia’s maritime territorial disputes with China, Indonesia’s government had previously been circumspect about those confrontations. But the last two incidents in particular, where a China Coast Guard vessel rammed a Chinese fishing vessel to free it from being detained by Indonesia authorities in March and where an Indonesian Naval Corvette fired warning shots in the arrest of an illegal Chinese fishing vessel in June, resulted in a public backlash against Beijing.

Although, the Indonesian government seems determined to defend its maritime sovereignty against Chinese incursions, the question is whether the Jokowi administration will seek a bilateral modus vivendi with China over its Natuna waters for the sake of preserving the vital trade and investment relationship, and in doing so, neglect its larger leadership obligations in ASEAN.

Such concerns are shared by Indonesia’s foreign policy community. In July, a number of Indonesia’s prominent foreign policy intellectuals, journalists and practitioners put their names to a ‘Statement on the South China Sea ruling’. It was an expression of concern in response to the arbitral tribunal’s ruling on the Philippines’ legal complaints against China. The statement referred to ‘ASEAN’s Dimming Lights’ and its ‘growing marginalisation in managing the tension in the South China Sea.’

The signatories’ concerns about Indonesia’s lack of leadership on the South China Sea issue within ASEAN were made abundantly clear:

‘An independent and active foreign policy does not give Indonesia a free pass to watch a strategic turmoil unfolding in its environment from the sidelines. In fact, the active component in our bebas-aktif doctrine requires us to take the leadership mantle and contribute to regional peace.’

The statement can be understood as the manifestation of frustrations with Indonesia’s anodyne 130-word official response which one signatory described as ‘bland’.

Since ASEAN’s founding in the early years of the New Order regime, Indonesia has viewed its national resilience (ketahanan nasional) as inextricably linked to the stability and autonomy of Southeast Asia. Indonesia’s foreign policy elites had conceived of ASEAN as the soko guru (cornerstone) of Indonesia’s foreign policy. In contrast to previous governments, however, Indonesia’s current political leadership appears to place less emphasis on Indonesia’s traditional conception of the regional order and Indonesia’s leadership in it. It’s increasingly obvious that without Indonesia’s strong leadership in ASEAN, China can successfully co-opt smaller ‘client states’ Laos and Cambodia through economic leverage to ensure South China Sea concerns are downplayed in ASEAN meetings. In Indonesia itself, meanwhile, links between cabinet-level politicians and Chinese business interests haven’t escaped scrutiny.

To complicate things further, the Widodo-led government is preoccupied with worrying domestic political instability. Recent violence perpetrated by Islamists is made far more dangerous by its conflation with higher-level machinations among Jakarta’s political elites ahead of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial and 2019 presidential elections. With ‘coup’ rumours swirling, or at least suspicions that protestors might attempt to oust the president, the Jokowi government has good reason to be concerned about national cohesion.

Faced with the prospect of a diminution of US strategic primacy in Asia, it’s natural Australia would turn to Indonesia as a fellow middle power with commonalities in strategic outlook, as Evans suggests. But given Indonesia’s high stakes domestic politics and apparent disinterest in reclaiming ASEAN’s leadership mantle, Australia would do well not to expect too much of its near neighbour.