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Indonesia’s balanced foreign policy: Lessons for other middle powers

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Leaders of Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states have repeatedly said that they will follow an independent foreign policy, and would not like to view complex geopolitical issues from simplistic binaries. In the aftermath of the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), during the Presidency of Donald Trump, as well as the China-US trade wars, even those countries vary of China’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the region have categorically said that they would not be compelled into choosing between Washington DC and Beijing.

Singapore PM, Hsien Loong in an interview in 2021, when asked about whether Singapore would chose Beijing or Washington in case of a conflict between the two said, “I hope the time does not come,”

While ASEAN has articulated its own vision for the Indo-Pacific, and 6 ASEAN countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Philippines — have joined the Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), ASEAN countries have repeatedly stated that their vision for the Indo-Pacific will not be identical to that of the US.

The latest country to send out a clear message, that it would not like to get embroiled in great power wrangling is Indonesia — which also hosted the recent G20 Summit held at Bali (Indonesia) (Indonesia held the G20 presidency from December 2021 till November 2022, while India will assume presidency from December 2022 to November 2023).

While Russian President, Vladimir Putin did not attend the G20 summit, Indonesian President Joko Widodo had invited Putin much to the displeasure of the west. The Indonesian President who visited both Ukraine and Russia in June 2022, and offered to mediate between both countries, had also turned down a request by Ukraine to provide arms

While addressing the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summit — held at Phnom Penh Cambodia from November 10-13, 2022 — Widodo while commenting on the need for ASEAN to remain neutral and not get bogged down by tensions between great powers said:

“ASEAN must become a peaceful region, and an anchor for global stability, consistently uphold international law and not be a proxy to any powers.”

Even before the beginning of the G20 Summit, the Indonesian President unequivocally stated that the focus of the summit, should be on economic issues and not zero-sum.

At the opening of the G20 Summit, Widodo said :

“Being responsible means creating not zero-sum situations, being responsible here also means that we must end the war. If the war does not end, it will be difficult for the world to move forward,”

Indonesia has close economic ties with China, with China being Indonesia’s largest trading partner. Chinese investments in Indonesia for the first half of 2022 were estimated at $3.6 billion, double of what they were in the first half of 2021. Beijing is also funding projects – including the Jakarta Bandung high speed railway – related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

At the same time, Indonesia also has reasonable ties with the west and Japan. A clear example of this point is the agreement signed on the side-lines of the G20 under which United States, Japan, Canada and six European countries will raise $ 20 billion to wean Indonesia away from coal. While 10 billion has been pledged by these countries in the form of public sector funding, the rest will come from the private sector.

A read out issued by the White House after a meeting between Biden and the Indonesian President, also stated that the US ‘expressed support for Indonesia’s leadership in the Indo-Pacific as the world’s third largest democracy and a strong proponent of the international rules-based order’.

Indonesia also has robust ties with Japan. During the visit of Indonesian President Widodo to Japan, in July 2022, both countries agreed to further strengthen security links – especially in the context of maritime cooperation — as well as areas like climate change and energy. The Japanese PM, Fumio Kishida also announced that Japan would provide assistance to the tune of $ 318 Million for Indonesia’s infrastructure sector and disaster prevention.

In conclusion, Indonesia has managed to not just successfully balance its foreign policy, but also reiterated the point, that ASEAN countries due to economic and geopolitical considerations will need to adopt a balanced foreign policy. Apart from this, Indonesia’s approach towards the Russia-Ukraine issue clearly reiterates the fact, that while attention is focused on the great powers, the role of middle powers is often relegated to the side-lines.