Opinion

Emerging Indonesia and
its global posture

At a recent ANZ seminar in Melbourne, Australia, president director of McKinsey & Company Indonesia, Arif Budiman, said Indonesia was the most stable among the world’s major economies. McKinsey predicts that Indonesia, currently the world’s 16th-largest economy by gross domestic product (GDP), will become the seventh-largest by 2030.

Many scholars, lawmakers, private companies and the media have billed Indonesia as “emerging”, “a rising middle power”, “the next member of the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa]” and other such titles. An interesting question is how the (perceived) rise of Indonesia will, and should, impact upon its foreign policy posture.

At the beginning of the 21st century the world order has been shaped by a changing balance of global economic power, signaled by the rise of “emerging powers”, which were previously perceived just as “developing countries”.

As one of the emerging powers, Indonesia has strong modalities to play an important role in addressing global issues.

Amid the global financial crisis the World Bank projects Indonesia’s economy to grow by 6.6 percent in 2013, better that of other emerging powers. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has cut its growth prediction for Brazil from 4.6 percent to 4 percent, while Moody’s Analytics predicts India’s GDP growth rate to be at a level of 6 percent.

Diplomatically, Indonesia has also gained a prominent position in the global arena in recent years by becoming a member of the G20 and co-chairing the UN High-Level Panel on the Post 2015 Development Agenda. Indonesia is clearly more than just “a fractured belt of comets orbiting China”, as incorrectly suggested by Parag Khana (2009, 291).

Having said that, the nature and style of Indonesian foreign policy differs from other emerging powers. The BRICS are more assertive and tend to become revisionists of the global status quo. Brazil, India and South Africa, for instance, consistently ask for permanent seats in the UN Security Council.

In the area of development cooperation, most emerging powers already have Official Development Assistance (ODA) bodies. India inaugurated the Development Partnership Administration (DPA) last year, while Brazil and South Africa have set up similar bodies a few years ago. BRICS nations also agreed a plan to set up a “development bank” at last year’s BRICS Summit in New Delhi. The bank will become sort of an antithesis of a traditional donor scheme, which is dominated by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations.

Indonesia, on the other hand, does not have an ODA body yet and in the short run, it will not follow the BRICS’ path to expand its strategic influence by providing aid to less-developed nations. Indonesia, of course, has its own consideration and situation to act differently from the BRICS. From a domestic point of view, Indonesia has interminable development problems, such as a high poverty rate, increasing income inequality and rampant corruption that could constrain an assertive foreign policy.

Nonetheless, why do India, South Africa and even China — which are subject to the same, or perhaps even more serious, domestic pressures — confidently pursue more aggressive, coercive foreign policies?

Foreign policy construction is greatly influenced by the complex combination of state capacity, the dynamics of domestic politics, values and identity. In relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors, for instance, Indonesia’s assertiveness is not constrained fully by a lack of absolute advantage over other nations — unlike Brazil, India and Russia, which are far more dominant than their peers in their respective regions.

More importantly, despite some interventionist proposals in ASEAN, such as the establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), Indonesia chooses to respect regional consensus norms that prioritize peace and stability as basis for common prosperity in the region, a stance that is different from India’s arms races with Pakistan or China’s firm behavior toward its neighbors on territorial disputes.

For the emerging Indonesia, the existing guidelines of its foreign policy, which places an importance on ASEAN and acts as a “constructive builder” amid global uncertainty, are still much preferable than unilateralism or a “go it alone” policy. In the next couple of years, those postulates will be increasingly carried out in tandem with ideas of deepening bilateral cooperation with selected “strategic partners”.

Although there is no need to leave its commitments to ASEAN and redirect its concrete contributions to a broad range of global issues, Indonesia has to restrengthen its regional leadership in Southeast Asia as a basis to serve its rise in the region. It should go beyond the normal assumption that Indonesia is a primus inter pares (first among equals).

Indonesia needs to focus on developing a more substantive, rather than abstract, leadership in the region. For this reason, significantly enhancing its bilateral relations with other Southeast Asian nations is pivotal.

Business players should be encouraged and facilitated to expand economic activities in other
Southeast Asian nations.

For years, Indonesia devoted much political and diplomatic energy to help resolve conflicts in Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, but it has not brought many economic benefits from those countries once the conflicts ended. Indonesia’s investment in Myanmar, for instance, is much less than the investment of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, despite Indonesia’s diplomatic engagement and initiative that contributed to Naypydaw’s political reform. There is no direct Jakarta-Phnom Penh flight although Indonesia built up some outstanding diplomatic credentials in Cambodia during the 1980s-1990s crisis.

Indonesia should also send more people, especially students, with the government’s funding, to learn about the cultures and languages of other Southeast Asian countries and get to know these countries. This effort is crucial to tighten long-term emotional and intellectual linkages between Indonesians and their Southeast Asian fellows.

For strategic purposes, Indonesia also needs to establish more institutes/centers that are dedicated to Southeast Asian studies. Institutes or centers related to international affairs could potentially encourage people to develop outward-looking mindsets that are critical to bridge gaps between foreign policy and
domestic aspirations.

The new status as an emerging middle power provides Indonesia more foreign policy alternatives. Reevaluating Southeast Asia as a strategic and more substantive asset could be the most beneficial option.

The writer is a foreign policy observer.

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