Indonesia at 75: Five Things to Know about Indonesia’s Foreign Policy

Angelo Wijaya
5 min readAug 22, 2020

Seventy-five years after its independence, Indonesia still grapples to define its role in world politics. Though it is true that Indonesia has made some progress in its foreign policy throughout its history as an independent nation, there are issues where Indonesia lags behind. Noting that the same leadership assumes the role to lead the country for the next five years as it has in the past five years, what are five foreign policy items worth noting?

1. Relationship with China — and the US

It doesn’t take a genius to tell that Indonesia under the current leadership leans (more) towards China than it does towards the US.

It is no secret that President Joko Widodo has met with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping in many occasions. Both leaders have visited each other in their respective countries for more than 3–4 times each.

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister is also noted to be diligent in meeting the Chinese Foreign Minister. As recent as August 20, 2020 both along with Indonesia’s Minister of SOE met in Hainan, China to discuss bilateral issues.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Indonesia and the US is not as warm. Despite the fact that President Joko Widodo’s pick for Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Deputy Minister was the former Indonesian Ambassador to Washington, relationship between the two remains loose.

Despite last year’s 70th anniversary celebration of US-Indonesia diplomatic relations, Joko Widodo has never visited Donald Trump in the White House and vice-versa.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (Left), Indonesia’s Foreign Minister (Center), and Indonesia’s Minister of State-Owned Enterprises Erick Thohir (Right) met in Hainan, August 20, 2020.

2. ASEAN Remains Central — while Indo-Pacific Remains A Talkshop

ASEAN, having a special place in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ agenda, remains central in Indonesia’s foreign policy.

Indonesia’s push in ASEAN to adopt the Indo-Pacific Outlook (AOIP) is a good example.

In addition to that, Indonesia is now pushing another “initiative” in ASEAN for the organization to adopt the so-called “ASEAN Identity”. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also eager in promoting its ASEAN-Indonesia Youth Ambassador Program to boost its profile in Socio-Cultural cooperation.

Unfortunately, the AOIP has received criticisms from scholars for not having much actionable things in its text.

3. Seats in UN Bodies Seeks to Boost Domestic Confidence

Indonesia assumes its non-permanent membership at the United Nations Security Council for 2019–2020. It has held two presidencies — the second one being as recent as August 2020.

The campaign to grab this seat has been going on since as early as 2016–2017 — with the slogan Indonesia, “The True Partner for World Peace”.

Indonesia’s seat at the UNSC has boosted domestic confidence in the country.

However, we are yet to see Indonesia bringing up “difficult issues” to the SC’s table — such as the South China Sea issue, or the Rohingya issue, or even the Uyghur issue.

Indonesia has been busy advocating for the increase in the number of women peacekeepers in peacekeeping operations. Whether or not this will actually bring more benefits than goes in vain remains to be seen.

Besides Indonesia’s seat at the UNSC, Indonesia also campaigned aggressively at the UNHRC — the UN’s human rights body — and at the ECOSOC — the UN’s economic chamber.

Indonesia’s campaign to grab a seat at the HRC reads “A True Partner for Democracy, Development, and Social Justice”.
Indonesia’s bid for a seat at ECOSOC reads “A True Partner for Sustainable Development”.

4. In Search of the Right Balance: Palestine, Uyghur, and Rohingya

Indonesia has been very vocal in its support for the Palestinian people and the people of Rohingya.

Unfortunately, Indonesia has been unable to bring the issue of Rohingya to the ASEAN table.

Indonesia’s former vice president during Joko Widodo’s administration, Jusuf Kalla, said publicly that the Uyghur issue is China’s domestic issue and that Indonesia couldn’t interfere with China’s domestic issue.

In its support for the Palestinian people, Indonesia’s foreign minister once threatened its Australian counterpart that Indonesia will pull out of Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) if Australia continues to show its support towards Israel and US’ foreign policy on Israel — such as by moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Indonesia ended up not pulling out of IA-CEPA.

5. Economic Diplomacy — The President’s Agenda

Despite not being the current minister of foreign affairs’ forte, President Joko Widodo has emphasized that for the next five years, Indonesia will focus on economic diplomacy.

His pick for Deputy Foreign Minister says it all. Mr. Deputy Foreign Minister once held strategic position in Indonesia’s Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs (2001), and subsequently, in the same Coordinating Ministry held the position as the Deputy Minister for International Economic and Financial Relations (2005–2009). He was the Deputy Minister of Trade (2009), the Deputy Minister of Finance (2011–2013), and the Chair of Indonesia’s Investment Coordinating Board (2013–2015). He was appointed as the Indonesian Ambassador to the US in 2018.

The previous Deputy Foreign Minister (2014–2019) was a solid Middle East/Arab enthusiast. His replacement is a sign of Indonesia’s pivot of approach in foreign policy. Fachir, the previous Deputy Minister was a pesantren-educated Indonesian. Having studied at the Faculty of Arabic Languages and Literature in Jakarta, he wrote an undergraduate thesis in Arabic. He once held a strategic position at Indonesia’s Moslem Student Association’s local chapter (1981–1982).

The president seems to have never mentioned anything about his interest in increasing the number of women peacekeepers in peacekeeping operations.

What to Expect? — A Way Forward

Indonesia’s foreign policy outlook in the next five years looks promising, optimistic, and bright — seen from the economic point of view, considering President’s pick for the Deputy Foreign Minister.

Indonesia’s strategic position in political security sphere, however, remains to be seen. Indonesia will continue to face challenges, whether it is in the South China Sea, the great power rivalry between China and the US, or even a Russian cyber-attack.

Whether or not Indonesia will excel in foreign policy areas depends on its diplomatic “engine”. And the President has picked the right Deputy Foreign Minister for the next five years.