Sunday 25 Sep 2022 | 23:15 | SYDNEY
Sunday 25 Sep 2022 | 23:15 | SYDNEY

Indonesia, Obama and diplomatic leverage

15 November 2010 11:50

Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia’s foreign policy at Griffith Asia Institute.

It seems ironic given recent trends that the relatively few macro studies ever written about Indonesia's foreign policy interpreted it principally in terms of 'weakness'. Indonesia's diplomacy was that of a 'weak state', the scholarship argued, based on its dependence on external aid, contested identity (being neither Islamic nor secular), and sense of vulnerability to external interference. Perhaps it's time for a new scholarly construct as well as empirical understanding, given Indonesia's diplomatic leverage seems to be growing at an inexorable rate.

Take the outcomes of Obama's 20–hour visit to Jakarta as an example. Not only did SBY pull on the US president's heart strings when he bestowed one of Indonesia's highest honours on Barack Obama's late mother for her 'service to' and 'love' for Indonesia (specifically for her research on women and village micro–credit schemes), Indonesia appears to have got exactly what it wants in foreign policy terms, if the excerpt of the Plan of Action to implement the Indonesia–US Comprehensive Partnership is anything to go by.

In what must be a huge diplomatic coup for Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Kemlu), Jakarta has achieved some of its key foreign policy objectives in the Plan — US affirmation of ASEAN's centrality in East Asian governance; a US commitment to cooperate with Indonesia in maintaining Southeast Asia's peace and security; and US support for reform of the UN system (which has long been a bugbear for the world's fourth most populous state, as it has for India). Additionally, the very comprehensive initiatives outlined to strengthen bilateral defence and security cooperation are sure to go down well at Indonesia's military headquarters.

To understand Jakarta's achievement in concluding such a comprehensive agreement with the US, one should reflect on the latest buzz words to emerge in Indonesia's foreign policy discourse: 'keseimbangan' and 'dinamika equilibrium' (balance and dynamic equilibrium).

Such terms can be understood as catchwords for a strategy which seeks to prevent either the US or China, and particularly their growing strategic rivalry, from hijacking the regional multilateral agenda and undermining ASEAN's centrality, which would in turn diminish Indonesia's autonomy and leadership in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the foreshadowed closer bilateral security cooperation  provides the necessary balance to China's more assertive rhetoric on the South China Sea, which has puzzled some in Jakarta.

Through the euphoria of Obama's visit one can see Indonesia's long–held aspirations for a greater role in international affairs becoming a reality.  It seems the implications of China's ascendancy for Indonesia — impressive economic growth, the growing consequence of ASEAN, and greater US strategic interest — have given Indonesia the gravitas in regional and international affairs it has always aspired to. In short, Indonesia is emerging as a pivotal state in the emerging East Asian order. Hopefully Australia has noticed.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza, used under a Creative Commons licence.