Indonesia’s presidential candidates will deal very differently with thorny foreign policy issues

Tria Dianti and Arie Firdaus
Indonesia’s presidential candidates will deal very differently with thorny foreign policy issues Indonesia’s then-military chief Adm.Yudo Margono (center) attends the final day of the ASEAN Natuna Solidarity Exercise 2023 including Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, in the Natuna waters off Lagong island, in Indonesia’s Riau Islands province, Sept. 23, 2023.
Bay Ismoyo/AFP

All three candidates for Indonesia’s presidency agree the country should not align with major powers, but they are at odds on defense spending, resolving tensions in the South China Sea, and transforming the Southeast Asian giant into a global power.

But while the candidates, Anies Baswedan, Prabowo Subianto and Ganjar Pranowo, have distinct views on what Indonesia’s foreign policy should be, analysts say the three lack knowledge on how to achieve their goals because their focus for the Feb. 14 election has been on domestic issues.

But address those foreign policy objectives they must because Indonesia, an archipelago home to more than 270 million people and Southeast Asia’s largest economy, has become a strategic player amid U.S. and Chinese competition for regional primacy.

Indonesia is a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a grouping of 10 countries set up to promote regional economic growth and political stability. And as the rotating chair of ASEAN last year and the Group of 20 (G20) in 2022, Jakarta has made clear its ambition to become a power of global reckoning.

Anies, a former governor of Jakarta, has a grand plan to do just that, he said during the presidential candidates’ second televised debate on Sunday night that focused on the issues of defense, security and geopolitics.

He said that if elected he would make Indonesia a “force for peace and prosperity” in the world, and leverage its rich culture, arts and economy to boost its soft power and influence on the world stage.

“We want our films, our cuisine, our diplomats and our diaspora to be globally recognized. We want to be present and influential in the international arena,” Anies said.

Indonesia should be a “leader of diplomacy” that will actively engage in and shape the global agenda, especially on issues such as climate change, human rights, and democracy, he said.

Prabowo Subianto (left), Indonesia’s defense minister and presidential candidate, speaks during a televised debate with his opponents Ganjar Pranowo (center) and Anies Baswedan, at the Istora Senayan stadium in Jakarta, Jan. 7, 2024. [Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Reuters]

Anies criticized the current administration’s foreign policy as being too pragmatic and transactional, and called instead for a values-based foreign policy. 

He didn’t elaborate on what he meant by that but he has said in recent months that a transactional foreign policy gives priority to issues such as market access, investment and trade in bilateral relations with other countries. 

By contrast, under a values-based policy, Jakarta would have relationships with other countries based on core principles it believes in.

Anies’ criticism of the current foreign policy on Sunday’s debate was rebutted a day later by  the country’s top diplomat, Retno Marsudi, albeit without naming anyone, in her first annual speech.

“Indonesia’s diplomacy is carried out in a well-measured, well-calculated, action-oriented, result-oriented manner; but at the same time, it continues to uphold the unshakable values and principles,” she said on Monday.

"Our foreign policy is not transactional."

The Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank, had noted that Indonesia was a “middle power in Asia,” and the London-based Chatham House policy institute had described the country as an important balancing power in the region, Retno said.

‘Free and active foreign policy’ 

Ganjar, a former Central Java governor, said foreign policy should focus on how it can help the Indonesian people. 

“The free and active doctrine needs to adapt to the current situation. The people need jobs, so we will create more jobs, more investment,” Ganjar said. 

“The ambassadors and diplomats will be assigned to look after our interests abroad.” 

Presidential frontrunner and current Defense Minister Prabowo said he wanted to make Indonesia a “strong and respected” country with a powerful military.  

A former army general, Prabowo also said he backs the country’s traditional stance of being “friendly to all, enemy to none,” and to stay out of the competition between the United States and China. 

“Indonesia has always followed a free and active foreign policy, not joining any alliance or bloc,”  said Prabowo, who is leading in most opinion polls.

If elected, Prabowo said he would keep improving the country’s defense capabilities and protect Indonesia’s sovereignty and borders, especially in the South China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with China and other neighbors.

Indonesia has such disputes also with Malaysia, Palau, Philippines and Vietnam.

The South China Sea, a source of tension and competition between China and the U.S., as well as several ASEAN countries that have conflicting claims with China, was one of the challenges that the candidates discussed during Sunday’s debate.

China claims almost all of the strategic waterway, which is also contested by Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

While Indonesia is not a territorial claimant in the South China Sea, its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Natuna Islands overlaps Beijing’s claims in the waterway. Bilateral diplomatic tensions have arisen in recent years with Chinese fishing boats and coast guard ships encroaching into Indonesia’s EEZ.

A man rides his bike past the billboard of two pairs of candidates and other legislative candidates in Surabaya, ahead of next month’s general election in Indonesia, Jan. 8, 2024. [Juni Kriswanto/AFP]

China and ASEAN have been negotiating a code of conduct for the South China Sea since 2002, but progress has been slow amid disputes over the scope and legal status of the document.

Ganjar suggested that there should be a temporary agreement in the region to avoid any unwanted incidents in the South China Sea. 

“We need to increase patrols around the South China Sea. We need floating tankers and more naval personnel to conduct patrols,” he said, referring to what Indonesia needed to do.

Anies, however, said Indonesia should work with ASEAN to solve the dispute.

“Instead of acting as a single nation, we should stand together as ASEAN. We should deal with other countries as a unified region,” he said.

Ganjar countered saying that the regional bloc’s decision-making process was very complicated and frequently led to issues that remained unresolved for years.

“We have to revitalize ASEAN, so that we can make decisions without requiring consensus,” he said.

Prabowo put on his defense minister’s hat to push for a stronger military and equipment to defend Indonesia in the dispute.

“When we talk about the South China Sea, we stress that our power must be strong. We need platforms for patrol, we need satellites and we need a lot of them,” he said.

The candidates did not present many new or specific ideas on how to handle the foreign policy and defense challenges that Indonesia faced, said Muhammad Waffaa Kharisma, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

This, he said, reflected much of the Indonesian public’s relative lack of interest in candidates’ foreign policy plans.

“[T]he majority of the Indonesian public [is] more concerned about the domestic issues of the candidates, such as their position on strengthening and improving the justice system and combating corruption, as well as their plans to manage the increase of food prices and job security,” he said.


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