Indonesian Foreign Policy in 2021: The Year in Review

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ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Indonesian Foreign Policy in 2021: The Year in Review

From Myanmar to the Natuna Islands, Jakarta’s foreign policymakers had their hands full this year.

Indonesian Foreign Policy in 2021: The Year in Review

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi welcomes U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit to Jakarta, Indonesia, on December 14, 2021.

Credit: Twitter/Menteri Luar Negeri Republik Indonesia

2021 was another challenging year for Indonesian foreign policy. The country faced numerous strategic challenges, some new and some the extension of preexisting challenges. Here are the stories that most captivated observers of Indonesia’s foreign and security policy.

Myanmar: A Test of Indonesia’s Regional Leadership

Despite the growing risks of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, the Southeast Asian region was troubled by the severe political crisis in Myanmar. The country’s military forcefully deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration on February 1, and cracked down violently against those protesting the coup. The spotlight immediately turned to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in the hope that the regional body might take rapid and appropriate measures in response.

In addition to condemning and expressing its concerns about the coup, Indonesia took the diplomatic lead within ASEAN, inviting the organization’s foreign ministers to talks aimed at building a concerted regional response to the country’s crisis. In April, with the strong endorsement of Indonesia and the ASEAN Secretariat, the bloc’s leaders held a summit and agreed on Five-Point Consensus designed to deescalate Myanmar’s political situation. Among the points of consensus were the demands for immediate cessation of violence, peaceful dialogue between the contending factions, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and the appointment of an ASEAN Special Envoy to lead the bloc’s efforts. But few of these were implemented, raising questions about ASEAN’s ability to handle the crisis in Myanmar, and Indonesia’s ability to lead the bloc in the direction of its choosing.

But the year showed that Indonesia’s diplomatic efforts have clearly remained inadequate in creating a breakthrough on Myanmar’s political crisis, and in 2022, the country needs to think more creatively about how it can formulate practical policies aimed at calming the situation in the country.

A New Pattern in Indonesia-U.S. Relations

In 2021, Indonesia is arguably moved closer to the United States than it has been in some years. A series of high-level interactions between the two nations shows the extent to which the Biden administration has come to value Indonesia amid its competition with China. The milestones included the U.S.-led COVID-19 Summit and Forum on Energy and Climate in September, the sideline meeting between Biden and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo at the COP-26 in November and lastly, the visit of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to Jakarta.

Within just a few months, the two states have committed to expand their cooperation on COVID-19 recovery, infrastructure investment, renewable energy, and the reform of multilateral institutions. In Jakarta, Blinken laid out America’s Indo-Pacific vision and praised Indonesia for its leadership in the region, particularly in maintaining the rules-based international order. The reinvigoration of the Indonesia-U.S. partnership nonetheless remains in its early stages, and will require practical consolidation in the coming years. Rizal Ramli recently wrote in these pages that Jakarta-Washington engagement will always be shadowed by the questions of sustainability and whether it has the ability to deliver concrete benefits.

Indonesia’s Participation in Multilateral Forums

Indonesia’s president was actively involved in two of the year’s biggest multilateral forums. At the end of October, Jokowi attended the G-20 Summit in Italy, which had a number of ambitious goals, such as to strengthen global health architecture, promote a sustainable financial ecosystem, and advance financial inclusion. Jokowi also proposed the reactivation of global connectivity efforts, firstly on COVID-19 vaccine supply and distribution and in the longer run in the areas of transport logistics, economic production and services, and infrastructure investment.

The G-20 in Italy had a special significance for Jakarta, as Indonesia is taking over the chairmanship in 2022. Indonesia chose the theme of “Recover Together, Recover Stronger,” emphasizing the values of inclusion, collaboration, and resilience. Indonesia has the political and diplomatic advantages of being a non-aligned, active, and strategic middle power that can potentially drive more impactful and actionable G-20 resolutions.

Meanwhile, Jokowi’s appearance at COP26 received a great deal of global attention. Indonesia’s commitments to global environmental efforts will be critical, especially in the areas of deforestation, renewable energy transition, climate finance, and net-zero carbon emissions. Amidst the declining trust in multilateralism, Indonesia’s presence could help reinvigorate a collective mindset at the global level.

Geopolitical Dynamics

The year 2021 was dominated by the great power rivalry between China and the United States. The Indo-Pacific region, of which Indonesia is a pivotal component, sits at the center stage of the Beijing-Washington contest. The friction has arguably shifted away from direct conflict in the direction of “responsible competition,” but Indonesia’s neutral stance faced a number of challenges in the past year.

Relations with China have been shadowed by the current standoff over the oil and gas deposits near the Natuna Islands. Last month, China’s government reportedly sent letters of protest to Indonesia, demanding that it halt its drilling in the area. The Parliament responded strongly, expressing its concerns about these impingements on Indonesian sovereignty despite acknowledging the need to maintain the good economic relationship with Beijing.  These territorial frictions pose a definite risk to the ties between two nations, especially given the searing public scrutiny that faces Indonesian political elites today.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and its allies were proactive in increasing their presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Along with Australia and the United Kingdom, the U.S. announced a trilateral security partnership known as AUKUS. One of the key components of the partnership is to provide Australia with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry expressed its deep concerns at the formation of AUKUS, and called on Australia to maintain its commitment to regional peace and stability.

Indonesia’s responses to AUKUS were marked by three main impressions – disappointment, caution, and distrust – that gave voice to a considerable degree of strategic insecurity. But AUKUS but will not be the last “minilateral” defense and security initiative created by the U.S. and its partners with the aim of countering China’s expanding influence in the Indo-Pacific. And so while Indonesia will continue to feel concerned by these security pacts between “like-minded” powers, it will need to keep promoting the renunciation of threat or use of power as stated in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific guided by the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. The question of how Indonesia can realize its stated goal of strategic autonomy in a context of increasing geopolitical friction remains ongoing and will likely evolve for years to come.

Forward to the G-20

Foreign policy observers have offered a variety of impressions of Indonesia’s foreign engagements this year. Former Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has suggested that Indonesia’s foreign policy should not be passive, simply expressing hope and concerns in response to the prevailing strategic and geopolitical challenges. Evan Laksmana in a similar tone argued that Jakarta’s foreign policy is unprepared for the current geopolitical clashes and that its foreign policy reflexes are long outdated. Given its strategic position, Indonesia will probably always face the implications of great power competition and shoulder high expectations of playing a stronger multilateral role. On these counts, Jokowi’s foreign policy is set to rise in influence and weight during Indonesia’s G-20 presidency in 2022.