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Indonesian Diplomacy in Transition

By Susan Harris Rimmer and Mathew Davies | December 10, 2015

"President Jokowi with Presidents Obama and Xi at APEC Summit 2014" (Image Source: Tempo)

Indonesia is a ‘big nation’ in transition, making important choices about the projection of its foreign policy personality and identity in a time of domestic and regional seismic shifts.  Indonesia has all the attributes of a rapidly ascending power; a GDP of some $2.554 trillion USD (PPP), an economic growth rate in 2014 of 6.46%, G20 membership, a population of just over a quarter of a billion people. These, together with Indonesia’s position as the largest Muslim majority democracy in the world, and by far the largest member of ASEAN, all suggest a country that should be taken seriously. Yet Indonesia’s status on the world stage is far less than would be expected (Davis 2014). Even in Amitav Acharya’s 2015 book called Indonesia Mattershe admits that Indonesia is not moving towards the position of a great power ‘in the traditional manner’ (Acharya, 2015: 1). Indonesia does not pursue hard power in traditional ways, but that is not the whole story.  

To see how Indonesia matters in today’s world requires looking beyond the world of ‘high diplomacy’. To understand Indonesia’s influence requires embedding an analysis of what Indonesia does within an appreciation of what Indonesia is. A list of activities does little to capture Indonesia’s influence because it is not definitive of that most crucial component of influence – how Indonesia is perceived and how the ideas that characterise Indonesian politics and interests are received. If we use the frame of ‘soft power’ and use Joseph Nye’s theory of ‘attraction rather than coercion’ (Nye, 2004: 5) I argue that one key element of normative influence, that of modelling behaviour, is often overlooked as crucial to Indonesia’s role in ASEAN. This type of influence does have some notable limitations.  

Indonesian soft power has most influence when exerted through modelling behaviour, in other words, Indonesia’s positional and identity significance. Modelling behaviour in this sense includes:

  • its democratic credentials,

  • its shift from authoritarian military to democratic civilian government,

  • emerging economy status and projected economic growth,

  • social media aptitudes, such as huge Twitter community, and

  • its particular take on multiculturalism, or at least pluralism.

It should be conceded that some of these attributes are often contested, within and outside Indonesia, especially religious and ethnic tolerance, the difficulties in moving from procedural to more substantive democracy and dealing with corruption and money politics. The downside of modelling behaviour as a key component of soft power is that as Indonesia gains more power, it will receive more scrutiny on these identity issues.  

Some might also argue that this soft power has not occurred through design, but by the lack of a state’s fragmented capacity to mobilise hard power.  Nevertheless, there is some opportunity to be more strategic about this source of power and take this influence beyond ASEAN, using the amplifying effects of its regional leadership. Indonesia often has an impact on ASEAN members by modelling behaviour rather than overt negotiation or displays of coercive hard power.  When Indonesia expresses concern about productive cross-border infrastructure in South-East Asia, or foreign fighters in Syria, or the plight of migrant workers in the Middle East, this should have forceful impact beyond the region.   

Indonesia’s participation in the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR) is a case in point.

Indonesia has a legacy within ASEAN for championing the Treaty of Amity of Cooperation (TAC), which promotes peace and cooperation (Santikajaya 2014b). The AIPR was established through a joint statement by ASEAN Heads of State which was delivered during the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia in May 2011. The AIPR Governing Council held its first meeting in December 2013. It was reportedly a Jakarta initiative, with even ASEAN members like The Philippines and Thailand being skeptical. Previous Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa stated in a 2012 speech to the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club that the new body was neither a substitute for government-to-government talks nor for calling an emergency meeting of ministers. The AIPR was a ‘menu option’, a ‘catalyst in trying to get ASEAN members to start to think that they could solve their own disputes’ and eventually, ‘an ASEAN export’ (cited by ICG 2012).  

In 2015 an AIPR symposium was held in Myanmar with lessons learned from conflicts in the Philippines and Indonesia. The role of great powers US and China are more useful in explaining the current transition process in Myanmar. But the Myanmar government is more likely to consider as valuable lessons learned on how to manage and prevent religious conflict, pursue democratic transitions and reform the role of the military in a constitutional democracy from a country like Indonesia within the ASEAN context, than almost any other source.  The AIPR deserves more investment and Indonesia should be generous, and honest, about offering up its lessons learned to the region in the spirit of creating a genuine ASEAN culture of conflict prevention and preventative diplomacy.


So what is another example on how ASEAN could ‘learn’ from Indonesia's diplomacy under the new President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo? ASEAN members should be far more active in promoting the ability of civil society organizations and people-to-people dialogues to contribute to the aims of the ASEAN Charter. There could be greater effort to bring home to the region some of the global economic governance debates Indonesia is participating in via forums like the G20 and APEC. There could be a stronger propensity to bring more voices of ordinary people, not just business leaders, up to these forums. This is a source of influence that could be emphasised by the new style of ‘pro-people’s diplomacy’.  President Jokowi and his new Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi are emphasizing economic diplomacy, the strengthening of people-to-people links, and south-south cooperation.

Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) redefined Indonesia’s view of its place in the international system as a country with ‘a thousand friends and zero enemies’ and an ‘all directions foreign policy’ (2009).  Jokowi has outlined three priorities for Indonesian foreign policy: maintaining Indonesia’s sovereignty (especially through positioning Indonesia as a ‘maritime axis’); enhancing the protection of Indonesian citizens; and intensifying economic diplomacy (Saragih and Parlina, 2015).  Many insiders say that Indonesian foreign policy may not look radically different in the short term (Santikajaya 2014a).  However, diplomatic style may change. In contrast to SBY, Foreign Minister Retno announced a shift away from international forums and towards ‘pro-people’ diplomacy to source more economic opportunities for Indonesians abroad, which she described as the ‘soul’ of Indonesia’s foreign policy. ”Indonesia’s foreign policy must be down-to-earth; it should not be detached from the people’s interests. Therefore, the kind of diplomacy that the Foreign Ministry will do is a pro-people diplomacy, diplomacy for the people” (Saragih and Parlina, 2015).

The style of Indonesian diplomacy will also change to suit this goal. President Jokowi expects diplomats stationed overseas to perform ‘blusukan’. This means impromptu visits to the constituents by state officials.  When asked about how he would deal with the difficult relationship with Australia, Jokowi favoured people-to-people links (Connelly 2014: 14).  ASEAN could greatly benefit from a dose of blusukan, and from moving from an elite process to something that more citizens in ASEAN country know about and debate.  

President Jokowi should consider how this new diplomatic focus can complement the power of Indonesia’s modelling behaviour, and perhaps make some of the soft power lessons more explicit beyond the region.  There are positive signs in this direction.  Indonesia now favours more nimble dialogue forums such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, South Korea and Australia).  Indonesia is also making more investments in public diplomacy, announcing that it would establish 10 cultural centres in the US, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Turkey, Japan, Timor Leste, Singapore, Myanmar and Australia.  These investments should highlight the unique flavour of what Indonesia brings to the international community.

Indonesia is rapidly becoming a country that has greatness thrust upon it, and without the usual appetite for such a role.  But it would do well to cultivate its soft power potential in ASEAN and beyond.  


Works Cited

Acharya, Amitav. 2015. Indonesia Matters: Asia's Emerging Democratic Power. Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific Publishing Company.

Connelly, Aaron L., 2004.  'Indonesian foreign policy under President Jokowi', Analysis.  Sydney: Lowy Institute, October.

Davis, Ben, 2014. 'Indonesia losing the race in soft power campaign', The Jakarta Post, 5 November, available at

Dhont, Frank, Kevin W. Fogg and Mason C. Hoadley (eds), 2009. Towards an inclusive democratic  Indonesian society; Bridging the gap between state uniformity and multicultural identity patterns. Yale Indonesia Forum International Conference Book Series 1. Atma Jaya Yogyakarta University.  

International Crisis Group, 2012. ‘All we are saying I give ASEAN a chance’, 13 December.

Nye, Joseph S. 2004. Soft power: The means to success in world politics: Public Affairs.

Santikajaya, Awidya 2014a. ‘Steady as she goes for Indonesian foreign policy, even with a new president’, East Asia Forum, 27 March.

_____ 2014b. ‘Indonesia: A Potential Leader in the Indian Ocean’ The Diplomat, December 12.  

Saragih, Bagus BT and Ina Parlina, 2015. 'Jokowi lays out his ‘pro-people’ diplomacy'. The Jakarta Post, 3 February.  

Sukma, Rizal, 2009.  'A post-ASEAN foreign policy for a post-G8 world'. The Jakarta Post, 5 October.

Yudhoyono, Susilo Bambang 2009. 'Inaugural Address’ Jakarta, 20 October.  


This is part of a larger piece by Susan Harris Rimmer and Mathew Davies entitled ‘Indonesia’s Normative Influence and the ASEAN Way’ for a special issue of Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies. Dr Davies’ contribution is gratefully acknowledged. I also acknowledge comments on a draft by Awidya Santikajaya from ANU.  All errors remain my own.

This article was republished with the permission from ASEAN Insights: Monthly Commentary on ASEAN News, Vol. 12/2015. The original document could be found on:


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