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  • Assessing Indonesia’s Foreign Policy under Jokowi
  • Chris Lundry (bio)

As Indonesia prepares for its 2019 presidential election, the race appears to be between the frontrunners of the 2014 election, Joko Widodo (also known as “Jokowi”) and Prabowo Subianto. Jokowi’s electoral victory in 2014 was notable given his humble background, quick rise, and populist undertones, although he moved quickly to establish his own priorities with regard to Indonesia’s international relations and role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

After taking office, Jokowi declared the end of the “thousand friends, zero enemies” foreign policy approach of his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which emphasized greater participation in international forums. Instead, he argued for a transactional approach that would more clearly benefit Indonesia. Jokowi made maritime security a top priority, including bolstering naval capabilities and implementing tough policies aimed at curtailing illegal fishing, piracy, smuggling, and drug trafficking. He increased executions in his first year as president, reflecting a tough approach to drugs in the archipelago—which was soon to be eclipsed by that of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte.1 Indonesia also experienced a resurgence of terrorist attacks in 2018, and new tactics and international connections have raised questions for relations with its neighbors, specifically the Philippines and Australia.

Yet despite initial signs that Jokowi may be steering away from the foreign policy path forged by his predecessor, this essay argues that he has for the most part stayed the course. Concerns that he may take a more isolationist approach are mostly unfounded, and his actions show a willingness to back away from early rhetoric—and actions—that may have signaled a more independent course for Indonesia. [End Page 30]

Emphasis on Maritime Security

Under Jokowi, Indonesia has taken an aggressive stance toward illegal fishing in its territorial waters. He couched his new policies of capturing and sometimes destroying foreign fishing vessels illegally operating in Indonesian waters in terms of sovereignty, a right that all Indonesian presidents have fiercely promoted in some form or another. After claiming that up to five thousand vessels operate illegally in Indonesian waters, Jokowi set his policy in place in the hopes of deterring future poachers. The results so far have been mixed. Although production in fisheries is up, it has prompted bellicose actions by China, which views most of the South China Sea as its own waters.

The policy provoked consternation among other ASEAN states, as most of the fishing ships sunk by Indonesia are from fellow members such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia. Members also worry about an increasingly assertive Indonesia.2 However, one could also argue that greater attention to naval capabilities is long overdue for the archipelagic nation of over seventeen thousand islands. Indonesia’s armed forces were predominantly land-based during the Suharto era and in the years directly following it, reflecting unease with both perceived and real internal challenges to Indonesian sovereignty. U.S. secretary of defense James Mattis has expressed U.S. support for Indonesia’s emphasis on maritime security.3 The two countries have conducted joint exercises in the Strait of Malacca as well as around the Natuna Islands, an area that extends Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone into China’s nine-dash line claim to the South China Sea. Jokowi wants to nearly double defense expenditures from 0.8% to 1.5% of GDP over five years, and the defense department received the highest share of the 2018 budget (107.7 trillion rupiah).4 In June 2016, Jokowi announced a plan to build an airstrip in the Natuna Islands and to move ships to the area to bolster Indonesia’s claim to the islands and counter any presence from China.5 [End Page 31]

Yet Indonesia is still far from being able to assert control over its maritime boundaries. The new policy is for now mainly symbolic, and questions remain as to Indonesia’s commitment to a policy that rankles its neighbors. Furthermore, perhaps reflecting a desire to avoid inflaming China’s ire, especially given its past aggressive reactions to Indonesia’s seizure of its fishing vessels, Indonesia has ceased pursuing Chinese ships.6

Executions Spur International Condemnation

After taking office, one...


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