As Indonesia presides over the G20 this year and assumes the ASEAN chair in 2023, international political and security developments place an ever-growing premium on diplomatic courage and acuity. Is Indonesia up to the task?

The rise of great power contest in Europe and the Indo-Pacific means Indonesia’s leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has arguably never been more important. As external states such as China, the US, India, and Japan compete for influence in Southeast Asia through the maritime, infrastructure, digital, defence, and biotech domains, Indonesia has a critical opportunity to shape the region’s destiny, rather than have it determined by others.

Strategic autonomy and diplomatic agency was, after all, the vision of Indonesia’s first vice president, Mohammad Hatta, who in 1948 enunciated the principles of Indonesia’s “free and active”—or bebas-aktif—foreign policy doctrine in a world roiled by Cold War politics and rising nationalism. True to Hatta’s vision, Indonesia has maintained its strong commitment to multilateralism and nonalignment. Since ASEAN’s inception in 1967, Indonesian diplomats have strived to build ASEAN’s strategic buffer function against external powers and engender norms of peaceful dispute resolution, dialogue, and consensus. During the Suharto years (1966-1998), for example, Indonesia initiated the Jakarta Informal Meetings in 1988 and 1989, which provided a platform for dialogue among the warring factions in Indo-China conflict. Indonesia also co-chaired the 1990 Paris International Conference on Cambodia, which resulted in a set of accords to end mainland Southeast Asia’s protracted conflicts.

In more recent decades, the country has been an important architect of Asia’s evolving security and economic architecture. This is evident in Indonesia’s diplomatic contributions to the establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and expanded East Asia Summit, which drew in Australia, India, New Zealand, the US, and Russia to balance China’s influence.

Domestic political change brought about by Indonesia’s 1998 transition from authoritarian rule was also the catalyst for shifts in Indonesia’s ASEAN policy. The projection of democratic values provided a new rationale for Indonesia’s engagement with ASEAN, and the organisation became an important platform for the expression of intellectual leadership and liberal aspirations of foreign ministry, academics, and think-tank elites.

Indonesia’s first directly elected president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, supported Indonesia’s norm entrepreneurship in ASEAN. Under his leadership, Indonesia initiated various institution-building efforts to mainstream democratic values and human rights, evidenced in agreement on an ASEAN Charter and adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.

During his second term, Yudhoyono sought new opportunities to position Indonesia as a regional power with global concerns. Although criticised domestically for his excessive “summitry,” Yudhoyono boosted Indonesia’s global profile, chairing the 2007 Bali UN Climate Change Conference, acceding to the G20, and increasing the country’s peacekeeping contributions.

By contrast, Indonesia’s global and regional leadership is now diminished. While the country’s diplomatic commitment to ASEAN has always been determined by domestic political consensus, opposition, or apathy to specific issues areas, including lukewarm support for aspects of ASEAN’s economic integration or haze pollution problems, Indonesia now seems to participate in ASEAN without investing significant diplomatic capital. The reason lies in a lack of presidential agency – one of the most powerful determinants of Indonesia’s leadership in ASEAN.

In Indonesia, like many states, the president is the central decision-maker and most powerful proponent of the country’s foreign policy direction. However, the current president, Joko Widodo—or “Jokowi”—shows little interest in promoting new norms, values, and principles that would enhance Southeast Asia’s unity in the face of China’s maritime coercion and internal upheaval in Myanmar. Instead, Jokowi’s more transactional foreign policy approach, which privileges foreign investment and infrastructure development, has drawn his country noticeably closer to China, aided by Beijing’s generous provision of vaccines and biotech cooperation.

Closer alignment with China and the president’s economic preoccupations means Indonesia is unlikely to reclaim its leadership mantle in ASEAN before the October 2024 presidential elections. And yet, Indonesia’s foreign policy apparatus is still capable of demonstrating regional agency and initiative. Although Jokowi takes a “hands-off” approach to issues that do not directly serve national economic and development interests, he delegates responsibility in many areas to the Foreign Affairs Ministry (Kemlu). This decision-making autonomy provides Kemlu diplomats with some opportunities to pursue Indonesia’s long-term strategic objectives, including Indonesia’s active role in promoting consensus on the ASEAN Outlook of the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

The AOIP presents a vision of the Indo-Pacific with ASEAN firmly at the centre of the regional multilateral architecture and  based on the principles of peaceful co-existence enshrined in the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Widely viewed as a response to more China-exclusive visions of the Indo-Pacific, its formulation was also hastened by the reinvigorated Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprised of the US, Japan, India, and Australia, which Indonesia viewed as a threat to ASEAN centrality and relevance in regional affairs. Interestingly, there is still no plan of action on how to translate the Outlook’s objectives into functional cooperation more than two years after its launch. The AOIP has also failed to prescribe concrete measures to mitigate major power tensions or prevent China’s territorial grab in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, although the Myanmar crisis has once again demonstrated ASEAN’s weakness, Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, has spearheaded a coordinated regional response to the February 2021 military coup, working to convene an emergency summit meeting of ASEAN leaders in Jakarta in March 2021. Jokowi supports these goals, as evidenced by his endorsement of the AOIP concept and recent deliberation with the Cambodian prime minister on the Myanmar crisis. However, it is widely accepted that the president lacks a coherent strategic vision for maintaining ASEAN’s relevance, unity, and autonomy in the face of a major power contest.

As it stands, Indonesia’s foreign ministry remains the key actor in government committed to a leading role in ASEAN. But without the authoritative voice of the president, it lacks the capacity and clout to translate rhetoric into concrete action.

As international political and security developments place an ever-growing premium on diplomatic courage and acuity, ASEAN seems hopelessly ineffectual and divided. In contrast to earlier epochs in Indonesia’s diplomatic history, Indonesia seems unwilling to expend serious diplomatic capital on intramural challenges like the Myanmar crisis or provide a coherent response to Beijing’s maritime revanchism and challenge to international maritime law. Moreover, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine risks undermining the global economy’s post-pandemic recovery, demanding even more of Indonesia on the global stage.

As Indonesia presides over the G20 this year and assumes the ASEAN chair in 2023, it will be interesting to see if “chairing” translates into “leading” for Southeast Asia’s largest state.


Pia Dannhauer is a PhD candidate at Griffith Asia Institute researching Indonesia’s foreign policy behaviour in ASEAN.

Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller is Senior Specialist Defence Research at The University of Queensland and an Adjunct Research Fellow at Griffith Asia Institute.

This article first appeared at Australian Outlook.