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77 5 DOMESTIC POLITICS AND INTERNATIONAL POSTURE: CONSTRAINTS AND POSSIBILITIES Rizal Sukma There are few countries whose international image has undergone as radical a transformation as Indo­ nesia’s within such a short period of time. In the mid-1990s, Indo­ nesia was widely viewed as a major contributor to regional stability in Southeast Asia. Following the political turmoil of 1998–99, however, the country quickly became a source of regional and international concern. Its international image was severely dented by a host of domestic challenges: economic adversity, communal violence, the threat of secession and the growing problem of religious radicalism and terrorism. There were even doubts as to whether Indo­ nesia could survive a democratic transition amidst mounting internal political crises and economic difficulties. By 2004, however, a sense of stability and normalcy had gradually returned, and within a decade of the reintroduction of democracy in 1998, it had become fashionable both within and outside Indo­ nesia to describe the country as a democratic ‘bright spot’ in the developing world. The changes in Indo­ nesia’s international image since Suharto’s ascendancy in 1967 – from provider of regional stability to producer of insecurity to consolidating new democracy – have been reflected in differing approaches to foreign policy. As a stable Southeast Asian state for the first three decades, Indo­ nesia was a confident regional player, working to ensure that the maintenance of regional stability would continue to generate prosperity for the region. When domestic order was shattered by dramatic political change in 1998, and national priorities were dictated by the imperative to manage internal political challenges, Indo­ nesia’s attention turned inward and it lost its voice in regional, let alone 78  Indonesia Rising: The Repositioning of Asia’s Third Giant global, affairs. By 2003, however, Indo­ nesia was once again ready to play a more active foreign policy role. It began to take a number of foreign policy initiatives that not only marked the return of a leadership role within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but also reflected its desire to invoke a new international image as the world’s third-largest democracy and largest moderate Muslim-majority country , and as a ‘bridge builder’ and ‘problem solver’ in the wider global community. This chapter examines the extent to which Indo­ nesia’s international posture has been subject to both the facilitating and restraining effects of domestic political realities. It argues that while recent gains in democratic consolidation have given Indo­ nesia the confidence to exert greater influence in the regional arena, its desire to play a bigger global role – as a functioning democracy, as a moderate Muslim country and as a ‘bridge builder’ and ‘problem solver’ – remains subject to the limits imposed by persistent domestic weaknesses. The discussion is divided into three sections. The first briefly discusses the elements of the new activism in Indo­ nesia’s foreign policy agenda. The second section examines how key aspects of domestic politics have affected the pursuit of regional and global activism. The third section focuses on Indo­ nesia’s strategic repositioning within East Asia. It suggests that this is a more realistic option for the country to address the growing disparity between its global aspirations and its status as a regional middle power. THE NEW ACTIVISM IN FOREIGN POLICY When the New Order government came to power in 1966, it immediately signalled its intention to change the course of foreign policy as a matter of national urgency. Suharto quickly abandoned the revolutionary expression of foreign policy pursued by Sukarno, while continuing to maintain ‘an aspiration to a pre-eminent role in regional affairs’, qualified by the recognition that Indo­ nesia ‘shall only be able to play an effective role [in international politics] if we ourselves are possessed of a great national vitality’.1 The first two decades of foreign policy were therefore shaped primarily by the need to create a peaceful external environment that would allow the government to concentrate on the imperative of national development at home. The desire to play a bigger international role re-emerged only in the late 1980s, when Suharto believed that Indo­ nesia had at last acquired the ‘national vitality’ to do so, primarily due 1 Speech by President Suharto, 16 August 1969, quoted in Leifer (1983: 112). Domestic Politics and International Posture  79 to the economic success at home (Heath 1987; Vatikiotis 1993; Sukma 1995). Accordingly, foreign policy in the 1990s was characterized by an attempt to raise the country’s international...


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