Foreign Policy Question Mark Over Indonesia Leader

By Matthew Pennington 24 October 2014

WASHINGTON — The remarkable rise of Indonesia’s new president has captured popular imagination at home and won praise internationally, but Joko Widodo still needs to prove his foreign policy prowess. The United States is looking for him to sustain Jakarta’s role as a regional leader in Southeast Asia.

US Secretary of State John Kerry attended the inauguration this week of Jokowi, as he is better known, whose personal story is symbolic of Indonesia’s own transition from autocracy to democratic rule. After he was sworn in, the leader of the world’s fourth-most populated country traveled to the presidential palace by horse and cart, underscoring his credentials as a champion of the poor.

The United States and other foreign governments will be willing Jokowi to do well. The 53-year-old, who previously served as governor of the congested capital, Jakarta, must make tough decisions, and soon, to boost economic growth in the sprawling, island nation of 250 million people. Washington will be hoping for a more welcoming climate for foreign investors.

Jokowi is poised to announce his cabinet line-up, including the key position of foreign minister, amid lingering questions about the president’s own dearth of experience in foreign affairs, and whether his ambitious domestic agenda, facing hostile political opposition, will preoccupy him.

The Obama administration is paying close attention to how Jokowi fares, and his management of Indonesia’s relations. The United States has made engagement with Southeast Asia a centerpiece of its attempt to rebalance its foreign policy toward the fast-growing economies of the Asia-Pacific, and has been supportive of Indonesia’s activist role.

President Barack Obama, who has a personal connection with Indonesia because he spent part of his childhood there, visited twice in his first term, and Kerry pulled out the stops to attend Monday’s inauguration, taking 26 hours of trans-oceanic flights from Boston.

Bilateral relations have thrived during the tenure of outgoing president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, although the trade and investment ties with the United States have been difficult because of Indonesian protectionism, including in the mining industry, said Murray Hiebert, deputy director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Indonesia has emerged as de facto leader of Southeast Asia’s regional bloc, best known by its acronym, Asean. Indonesia mediated when a border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia flared; it nudged Burma toward greater openness; and it helped patch up differences among Asean’s 10 members after an embarrassing public dispute in 2012 over its stance to maritime disputes involving China.

Indonesia performs a balancing act in its relations between strategic rivals China and the United States. Indonesia doesn’t count itself among nations contesting for islands in the South China Sea, but it is concerned that China’s expansive maritime claims extend to the Indonesian-held Natuna Islands. Indonesia’s military chief in April said it was strengthening its forces there.

The United States also views Indonesia, the country with the highest population of Muslims, as a voice of moderation and important partner in countering Islamist militancy. Indonesia has outlawed membership of the Islamic State group that has taken control of a swath of Iraq and Syria. Washington wants Jakarta to stop any flow of fighters from Indonesia and tighten controls on terrorist financing.

Aaron Connelly, an Indonesia specialist at the Australian think tank Lowy Institute, predicted a continuation of Indonesia’s slight lean toward the West. But he said Jokowi was likely to show less leadership on foreign policy than Yudhoyono and delegate more to advisers, which could lead to competition among them and give greater influence for nationalist voices at the margins.

“For the first time in 10 years, the Indonesian state will lack a paramount policy-maker on foreign affairs at its apex,” Connelly wrote in a recent commentary.

Jokowi, formerly a furniture maker, has risen to prominence on the back of his hard work as Jakarta governor. He has a chance to make his international mark at a sequence of regional summits coming in November, to be hosted by China, Burma and Australia and attended by Obama.

In the meantime, he has plenty to grapple with at home.

The transition to democracy after the dictatorship of Suharto, who was toppled in 1998, took root during Yudhoyono’s 10-year tenure. But economic growth on the back of a commodities boom has slowed. Infrastructure is fraying and corruption is rife.

Economists say Jokowi must soon decide how much to cut fuel subsidies that will cost the government US$30 billion this year unless they are trimmed—a move likely to stoke street protests. Jokowi’s supporters have already expressed concerns any reforms he tries to enact could be blocked by an opposition led by the Suharto-era general he defeated in July elections.

Legislators loyal to that defeated candidate voted last month to scrap direct elections for local officials, seen as a setback to the democratic system that enabled Jokowi to rise in politics.