The Strategist Six: Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
21 Apr 2016|

Image courtesy of ASPI 2016

Welcome to The Strategist Six, a feature that provides a glimpse into the thinking of prominent academics, government officials, military officers, reporters and interesting individuals from around the world.

1. Under your presidency, bilateral relations between Indonesia and Australia improved markedly. How do you view the state of the relationship today?

Well, ​I believe it is in good order now. President Jokowi and Prime Minister Turnbull should continue to build on the foundations that have been developed: our Comprehensive Partnership, and the Lombok Treaty. We had a bit of turbulence in our relations due to the Bali 9 executions, which in my view could have been handled better by our side, but I notice that the relationship has rebounded since then. People-to-people relations remain very strong and this makes a lot of difference. It is my hope that strong relations with Australia will continue to be a foreign policy priority for the Jokowi administration. To keep the momentum, I also strongly encourage President Jokowi to visit Australia, perhaps after your elections this year.

2. What would you nominate as your most significant achievement after 10 years in office?

It’s hard to point to just one, to be honest. But I can say with confidence that during my presidency, Indonesia continued its upward trajectory across the board: we became a stronger democracy, an emerging economy, a more united nation, more peaceful and more actively engaged internationally. The World Economic Forum called it Indonesia’s ‘Golden Decade’. I wouldn’t disagree with them.

I also think it is historically important for Indonesia that, after serving 2 terms, I stepped down from power the same way I came into it: peacefully, constitutionally and democratically. I think I left Indonesia in much better shape a decade later than when I first took oath in 2004. But I will leave it to history to judge.

3. Indonesia enjoyed very strong economic growth under your presidency. How do you maintain the momentum of strong domestic growth and generate the foreign investment necessary for greater prosperity?

During the 10 years I was President, our GDP per capita increased by more than 300%. We became a trillion dollar economy, we pushed poverty down significantly and had the fastest growing middle class in Southeast Asia. Our debt to GDP ratio was among the lowest in the G20, around 23%. At one point in time, the Indonesian economy was the second fastest growing among the G20 after China.

There were several factors that contributed to our strong macro-economic performance. We had strong economic teams. We constantly maintained prudent monetary and fiscal policy, and maintained a balanced budget. We made important structural changes, including reducing fuel subsidies not once but several times, while increasing social safety nets. We launched a very aggressive and indiscriminate anti-corruption campaign. And we were persistent in pursuing our economic mantra, which was ‘pro-growth, pro-job, pro-poor and pro-environment’.

That is why when the global financial crisis hit us in 2008, we were able to maintain growth above 4%, even though many fellow G20 nations were stagnating.

4. You were Indonesia’s first democratically elected president. Do you think that Indonesia’s democratic institutions are continuing to strengthen and function effectively?

I sure hope so. Democracy is strongest when the institutions are functioning, and weakest when the institutions are frail. This is true for all countries, including Indonesia. Building institutions is a never-ending process. Once you falter, there is always a danger of bad habits returning.

5. The whole of ASEAN is focused on the rise of China. How do you think ASEAN should deal with China’s ambitions in the South China Sea?

The rise of China has helped ASEAN economies grow. China has become the largest trading partner for most, if not all, ASEAN economies. China is also investing more in Southeast Asia, so the region has benefited from China’s rise.

The South China Sea is a strategic challenge to all of us. ​Only four ASEAN countries are claimants in the South China Sea. The rest of ASEAN just want to calm the flashpoint.

ASEAN does have a common position on the South China Sea. We have the ASEAN Declaration which was made in 1982, and I understand that Indonesia’s six points for addressing issues in the South China Sea remain a valid reference point for ASEAN.

The most important thing now is that ASEAN and China must be able to agree to a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. I believe the negotiation is progressing. But we need to conclude the Code of Conduct sooner rather than later, because the situation is getting more difficult with China’s reclamation and other developments.

6. How close is the South China Sea to becoming a scene of conflict?

Anything is possible, but the situation is still manageable. The South China Sea disputes won’t be resolved in the near future, so the best thing we can do now is to manage it. The claimants must have the political will to work together to handle the disputes peacefully, and refrain from provocative acts. Regional countries must also be active in encouraging confidence-building. I think an open conflict is avoidable, but we must do the hard diplomatic work.

I keep reminding all claimant states to avoid miscalculation because I do believe that open conflict could occur because of either miscalculation or an unexpected incident on the ground.