Indonesia Under Widodo Shifts From ‘Zero-Enemies’ Diplomacy

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Asian African Conference in Jakarta
China's President Xi Jinping, left, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, center, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, pose for photographs during the opening of Asian African Conference in Jakarta on April 22, 2015. Photographer: Romeo Gacad/AFP via Getty Images

Six months after taking office, Indonesian President Joko Widodo is starting to step away from his predecessor’s foreign policy of keeping everyone happy.

Widodo, known as Jokowi, criticized the United Nations and International Monetary Fund at this week’s Asian African Conference in Jakarta. He’s pledged to increase defense spending, ordered foreign boats seized for illegal fishing to be destroyed, and declined to pardon two Australian drug smugglers facing a firing squad, leading to warnings of damaged ties.

Jokowi’s actions contrast with former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s motto of “a million friends and zero enemies,” where Indonesia kept a low profile despite being Southeast Asia’s largest economy and the world’s fourth-most populous nation. While Jokowi may want Indonesia to be more visible, a proactive foreign policy could also distract him from an ambitious agenda to revive economic growth at home.

“Jokowi seems unafraid of making enemies to further domestic priorities, whereas it would be unthinkable for Yudhoyono to criticize the IMF and the UN,” Philips J. Vermonte, head of politics and international relations at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, said by phone. “But it’s impossible for anyone to have no enemies, let alone a country, and diplomacy isn’t only about prestige.”

Jokowi looked relaxed and confident as he was flanked by the leaders of China and Japan during the conference in Jakarta, as he woos foreign capital to help fund his 7 percent economic growth target. That compared with his early forays on the regional stage -- including the G-20 summit in Brisbane in November soon after he took office -- where he appeared ill at ease and said little in public.

‘Obsolete’ Lenders

In his opening remarks to the Jakarta conference, Jokowi called for reform of the UN to better address the “global injustice” of the occupation of Palestine. The idea that global economic woes can only be solved by the three major western-led multilateral lenders is “obsolete,” he said, and emerging nations should build a new economic order “to avoid the domination of certain groups of countries.”

“With Jokowi’s personality style: straightforward, outspoken and open, what he’s doing now is the antithesis to Yudhoyono,” Tirta Mursitama, professor of international relations at Bina Nusantara University in Jakarta, said by phone. “Jokowi’s administration knows that ‘millions of friends and zero enemy’ sounds beautiful, but it’s impossible. Being in the middle of two regional giants will look sweet, but a country has to lean toward one to gain more benefit.”

Drug Smugglers

His call for a new economic order comes as Indonesia plans to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The lender has gained support from more than 50 countries including U.S. allies Australia and the U.K., despite U.S. efforts to campaign against it. Chinese banks will loan Indonesia $50 billion for development projects, Rini Soemarno, state-owned enterprises minister, said on Thursday.

Jokowi has also reintroduced the death penalty for drug smugglers after a hiatus under Yudhoyono. Brazil and the Netherlands recalled their ambassadors after Indonesia executed their citizens in January. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff declined to accept the credentials of the nation’s new envoy, leading Indonesia to recall its ambassador.

Indonesia has ordered preparations for the executions of two Australian drug smugglers -- Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, part of a group known as the Bali Nine -- the Australian Broadcasting Corp said, citing a spokesman for Indonesia’s attorney-general. The duo, alongside other foreigners, will probably be executed within days, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Fishing Boats

Jokowi’s administration has sunk Vietnamese and Philippine boats in its fight against illegal fishing, even as he seeks to avoid being caught up in China’s territorial tensions with other Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea. He’s targeting almost $6 billion in projects to improve ports across the archipelago to become a “maritime bridge” between Asia and Africa, he said at an April 22 speech in Jakarta.

“To shoot drug dealers, to sink fishing vessels and lash out at foreign multilateral agencies are highly symbolic, but we’ve heard little in terms of actual foreign policy strategy,” Michael Buehler, a lecturer in international studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said by phone.

In his inaugural 2009 speech, Yudhoyono touted a strategic position where no country sees Indonesia as an enemy and with no country it considers an enemy. “Thus Indonesia can exercise its foreign policy freely in all directions,” he said.

Sukarno Era

That compares with Jokowi’s rhetoric that harks back to Sukarno, the nation’s first president and father of the head of Jokowi’s political party, who helped initiate the Asian African Conference in West Java in 1955. The meeting presented a united front against colonialism and laid the groundwork for the non-aligned movement, a group of states not formally allied with any major bloc during the Cold War.

Jokowi’s speech this week “confirmed a return to the type of rhetoric not seen the early 1960s, though without some of Sukarno’s fire,” said Greg Fealy, an associate professor at Canberra’s Australian National University. “My sense is that Jokowi is a very unsophisticated observer of international events but has strong ideas about how the world works.”

“There’s no doubting that he’s convinced of the rightness of his view,” Fealy said by e-mail. “Of course it also ties in with the current mood of assertive nationalism in Indonesia.”

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