Behind Indonesia’s ambivalence in the South China Sea

August 15, 2016/

With so much at stake why does Indonesia’s policy position on the South China Sea seem so ambivalent? Muhamad Arif looks at the domestic factors in play.

Under President Joko Widodo – commonly known as Jokowi – Indonesian foreign and security policy has been notable for its ambivalence when it comes to dealing with the rise of China and the South China Sea issue. Growing assertiveness towards maintaining territorial integrity, as seen in Indonesia’s ongoing defence modernisation project and new approach to military deployment, as well as its firm approach to law enforcement when dealing with illegal Chinese activities in Indonesian waters, has been coupled with caution to reign in this assertiveness  before it reaches the point of endangering Indonesia’s cordial economic relationship with Beijing.

Understanding this ambivalent behaviour requires a closer look at the interventionist role of Indonesian domestic politics in shaping the substance, and determining the timing, of its foreign and security policy.

International systemic factors primarily drive states’ behaviour. The shifting balance of power in the region, following the economic and military rise of China and its expanding power projection in the South China Sea, requires a response from Indonesia. The geography that places Indonesia right at the crossroads of major powers’ interests also requires it to pay great attention to regional security. While promising Indonesia economic benefits, this very same geographic reality also exposes the country to harmful external influences. This threat perception of potential external powers’ hidden intrusion is still apparent today.

In addition to these systemic pressures, states’ internal characteristics significantly shape and determine specific foreign and security policy, and the timing of its release. In the same way Konfrontasi was about Soekarno’s anti-colonialism, and the annexation of East Timor was about Orde Baru’s fear of communism and Soeharto’s adherence to Javanese culture (indeed, his gradual approach to annexation resembles Javanese teachings in dealing with enemies), the ambivalent nature of Indonesia’s recent policies in the South China Sea must be seen through the lens of a domestic political framework. Added to this must be an appreciation of the complex interplay of different domestic actors, and their respective parochial interests, involved in foreign and security policy-making.

Two factors have played an important role in this regard. First, the maintenance of territorial integrity is a specific focus of Jokowi’s presidency, and one he is very serious about – it was, after all, part of his campaign manifesto to guarantee the stronger presence of state in all areas of nationhood and citizenship. Hence we are witnessing the acceleration of defence modernisation and a new outward-looking approach to military deployment that sees the armed forces’ most sophisticated weapon systems deployed in the previously overlooked western area of the country. Read more…


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