Sunday, January 24, 2016

Indonesia's 'top dogs' in terrorism

The latest terrorist attack in Southeast Asia is an attempt to create new leadership among the region’s militants. And, as Zachary Abuza writes, in the bid for the top role, the attacks may escalate.

The attack in Jakarta that killed eight and wounded 25 should have been no surprise.

Since 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS to others) has increased their base of support across Southeast Asia and revitalised terrorist networks that had been in disarray.
Many point to the similarities between this attack and the recent attacks in Paris; barricade-style assaults, in which a few gunmen swarm into an area, kill as many civilians as possible before confronting responding security forces.

The attraction of this type of attack is clear: it requires low technical sophistication, often without any IEDs whatsoever, a limited amount of small arms training and a lot of testosterone. It requires little skill or even training. The barriers to entry are low, the opportunity to inflict a large number of casualties at the place of choosing is high, and the ability to garner media attention to your cause is, likewise, very high.

Jakarta was a case in point, a handful of men, with little training and very old weapons, were able to cause mass casualties and engage security forces in a two-hour standoff. The quick response of the security forces prevented what could have been a much larger tragedy.

But one should recall, this was not a mere emulation of Paris. The large Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) cell that was broken up in 2010 had a camp in Aceh to train for the same style of attack, first embraced by the Lashkar e-Taiba in Mumbai in November 2008. Indeed, one of the four militants killed in the Jakarta attack, Sunakim, had previously been arrested for training in that camp.

This style of attack will become a ready tool in the toolbox in Southeast Asia. Most Southeast Asian militants who fight with ISIS are front-line troops, with nothing more than small arms training. And for those who are unable to travel to Iraq and Syria due to proactive policing, these attacks can still be adopted, with some degree of success.

But it will not be the only tactic. There have been four IED plots disrupted in Malaysia, including an attempted suicide bombing late last week. In March 2015, a returnee from Syria tried to detonate a chlorine bomb in a Jakarta shopping mall. There is a danger in preparing for only the last type of attack.

There has and will continue to be much ink spilled on what the attack in Jakarta means. Was it an IS attack, or merely an IS-inspired attack? For me, the attack is significant for one reason, and one reason only; it is as an attempt to create a new leadership for Southeast Asian militancy.
JI was systematically taken apart following the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the October 2002 Bali bombing. JI perpetrated attacks in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009. But each attack ended up weakening the group and each arrest garnered more intelligence. There were well over a 1,000 arrests across Southeast Asia.

More importantly, those arrests led to intense factional debates within the organisation. Malaysian bomb-maker Dr Azahari bin Hussin was frustrated with the slow pace of attacks, roughly one a year, and wanted to increase the tempo, with more, though smaller suicide attacks, as happened in Bali in 2005. His protégé, Noordin Mohammad Top, doubled down on the al-Qaeda line of targeting the “far enemy” until his death in 2009. Abu Dujana and others weren’t morally opposed to those attacks, but saw them as counterproductive in the current context, and pushed for a resumption of sectarian conflicts in Sulawesi and the Malukus.

Neither side was able to garner enough support or effectively execute their strategy and both were taken apart by Indonesian security forces.

Dulmatin and Umar Patek tried to bridge the divide in 2010, with the Aceh cell that wanted to launch frequent, low cost, low tech barricade style attacks. But security forces broke up their cell, arresting or killing over 125 people in early to mid-2010, including the leadership, and their financier Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, once JI’s amir, or spiritual leader. From that point on, JI ceased to being an organisation with any centralised leadership.

This development mirrored debates within al-Qaeda, between Osama bin Laden, who wanted a centralised organisation, and Musab al-Suri, who saw that as being a strategic weakness. He argued that al-Qaeda should be nothing more than an ideology to inspire self-radicalised groups. And while he was correct in arguing that a formal organisation was a strategic weakness, the reality was that small cells and lone wolves were never more than the sum of all parts.
And that was particularly true in Southeast Asia.

By 2010, the pieces of the JI organisation and affiliated groups and charities remained divided over strategy and tactics, ego, limited resources and the impossibility of reconstituting itself under intense dragnets by security forces that had accumulated vast intelligence and knowledge, and were working with one another more effectively.

There were many successor organisations or splinters, but they varied greatly in terms of their capabilities, size and ability to engage in sustained violence. Some, such as the Eastern Indonesian Mujahideen (MIT), under the leadership of Sentoso, remain consistently lethal though geographically contained.

More importantly, each group has tried and failed to assume the leadership mantle and unify disparate organisations. And that’s where ISIL comes into play.

Although more Southeast Asians joined al-Nusra at first, recruitment into ISIL has grown, owing to the latter’s control of resources and territory, as well as its slick propaganda and, until recently, battlefield successes.

ISIL reinvigorated and revitalised dormant terrorist networks, charities and social organisations. It allowed militants to travel overseas, gain combat experience and, more importantly, organise.
Many groups across the region have pledged bai’at (allegiance) to ISIL, including the Abu Sayyaf, Anshaur al Khalifah and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in the Philippines, and the Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) and MIT in Indonesia.

Some did so for opportunistic reasons, others to garner media attention or in the hopes of gaining financial support from ISIL. In the case of the Abu Sayyaf, the spectre of beheadings of captives was seen as a way of raising the psychological pressure to command higher ransoms.

And yet, these groups remain largely autonomous and divided. However, the growth in stature of the Bahasa-speaking company of ISIL, Katibah Nusantara, is changing that. Indonesians Bahrun Naim and Malaysian Muhammad Wanndy Mohamad Jedi, founding members of Katibah Nusantara, are using the group as the nucleus of a new leadership.

While their battlefield success against Kurdish Peshmerga or the recent suicide attacks that killed more than 30, including 12 Iraqi police, both by Malaysians, are important, they need to act at home to begin to consolidate power. That’s why the attack in Jakarta is so important.
Bahrun Naim; the 'mastermind' behind the recent Jakarta terror attack.
Bahrun Naim; the ‘mastermind’ behind the recent Jakarta terror attack.

In the terrorism literature, there is a concept of “outbidding”. While we may be aghast at attacks against innocent civilians, or the beheadings of captives, they resonate deeply in the jihadist milieu. They are a source of empowerment.

More significantly they are a way to prove your leadership through actions. And for someone to garner the attention of both Southeast Asia’s militants as well as ISIL leadership, one must command a sustained campaign of violence. Nothing else, including fiery oration by known ISIL clerics such as the incarcerated Abdurrahman Aman, matters.

The Jakarta bombing was not just an attack against civilians or meant to discredit the Indonesian government or an act of revenge for the concerted campaign against MIT. Nor was it merely revenge for the arrest of some 11 suspects who were planning a wave of sectarian attacks against the small Christian and Shia communities in December. This attack was a move to make Katibah Nusantara the new leadership within Southeast Asian jihadist circles.

But the logic of “outbidding” is that because of the zero sum competition between ISIL cells and al-Qaeda, as well as an alphabet soup of other groups, there must be more violence to stay relevant. This is an ideological battle to be the vanguard organisation in Southeast Asia. But deeds speak far louder than words.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College where he focuses on Southeast Asian politics and security issues. Read his report, “Joining the New Caravan: ISIS and the Regeneration of Terrorism in Southeast Asia”, here.

This article was first published in The New Mandala in January 2016

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Beyond the ups and downs, still plenty left to discover in Indonesia

This year the Indonesian government has injected millions of dollars into a tourism campaign to encourage Australians to travel beyond Bali. At the same time, tourists continue to receive steady warnings from the Australian government and others about travel dangers in Bali and around Indonesia.
When I accepted an invitation to speak at the Asean Literary Festival in Jakarta in March 2015, I was met with worrying frowns, warnings and cautions from many on the Australian home front. How could I possibly go there? Was I crazy? Yet, Indonesia’s crime rate is lower than similar crimes reported in many large, Western hemisphere cities.
That statistic is relevant to me since I come from California which bears two of the top 10 most dangerous cities in the United States. As California has the death penalty, it is clearly not much of a deterrent as is evidenced by these statistics. In fact, the states without the death penalty are far safer.
Indonesia is often judged by the general Australian public as a very scary place to visit with worries about security threats, consular warnings, disease, murder, terrorism, disaster, corruption, executions, mishaps, violence, etc.
These are not classic tourism boosters that encourage the planning of a 'no worries' holiday in the Indonesian sun and the fun. But do Australians consider crime when they plan a trip to the US, for example? In my experience it's the exchange rate not the crime rate which would be the determining factor for a US holiday adventure in most cases. Yet, the United States has more violent crime than Australia, although it rarely involves tourists. Mass shootings continue unabated in public places in the US. But that is different than terrorism, eh?
'Not for a holiday'

When I organized a visit to Jakarta this year, I decided to treat myself to the luxury of a travel agent to handle all of the arrangements. I had never been to Jakarta before and I thought I would just give this over to a professional. While I waited for my turn with the agent, I perused the holiday brochures.

Hmmmm, Jakarta, let's see.... No Jakarta.

We had Bali, Lombok, Singapore, China, Thailand..... But no Jakarta, or even Indonesia.
"Doesn't anybody go to Jakarta then?" I said with a smirk. "No, not really, not for a holiday"
Yet, Indonesia is our nearest neighbor, is an enormous, populous country with over 250 million inhabitants, 10 times the population of Australia and the fourth-most populated country in the world, spread out over an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands. The population of the Greater Jakarta metropolitan area alone is about 28 million. The entire population of Australia and then some would fit into metropolitan Jakarta. Think about that.

Death penalty

In January, there was also a national unease growing steeply for a couple of Australian young men and a few others who were facing certain doom as death row inmates, with bullets being firmly prescribed as a treatment regime for their economic crimes. I thought of their own ill conceived fitness for travel all those fateful years ago and what should have and could have been done differently if our people to people relationships had been stronger beyond the politic. Their journey had been metamorphic, changing also the journey of others toward an improved life upon release from prison.

Sadly, there were to be some very special travel plans to come for our Australians taking them to their final destinations including a full Indonesian military escort, flyover and armed storm troopers to ensure maximum security. It is no wonder that Australians and others objected to this ghoulish overblown exercise, with the Indonesian military clearly in apparent fear of some mythical Australian assault.

They overeacted in a spectacular and costly show of force. This is not what we expected from a country that is trying to woo Australians to sample the delights of their archipelago. The entire event was incongruous to any national tourism strategy boost, at least one that was going to appeal to Australians. That left an indelible impression for sure.

Trapped in paradise

The hue and cry of fluctuating tourism numbers to Bali followed, along with a national economy in decline, interspersed with the ever-present protest from the surrounding volcanoes. Indonesia is after all geographically located on the "Ring of Fire" and contains the most volcanoes of any country in the world some 76 are active. It's a wonder that any travel insurance policy would cover volcanic events in Indonesia at all. Australian holiday makers became full of dread and stress at being stranded by the 1000s, trapped in paradise.

"But I want to go home now, this is outrageous, not good enough, I am inconvenienced," became the common complaints of travellers with no resilience, camped out at the airport, leaving a bad taste of pumice in their mouth.

It could be fair to say that we might have expected a different outcome from our Indonesian neighbors if we had a better relationship with them at the community level. That would involve more than political strategies and official trade relations.

Duncan Graham writes about the need for "suburban folk seeing for themselves how their neighbours live, understanding their values and appreciating what's really happening next door." Our current decline in uptake of Indonesian language and cultural studies in Australia is further evidence of the rift that is widening.

The fact is not many ordinary Australians know the first thing about Indonesia other than what the media offer up. It is hard to even locate a travel guide for Indonesia in Australia and even harder to find a Bahasa Indonesia language translation book. Some of the youngsters who travel to Bali on a schoolies holiday, courtesy of their worrying parents, don't even know that Bali is part of Indonesia. For many, it is their first time away from their parents and to a foreign country.

Language study

Where do our obligations lie, I have to ask? What are we doing in regards to language study and understanding of cultural diversity? Our blatant lack of preparation directly contributes to misunderstandings, bad behaviors and offenses that can and do lead to some pretty dire consequences. Are we too lazy to do the homework or do we need some leadership and investment by the Australian government, other than to issue travel warnings? We can and should do better than this.

There is certainly no requirement from me that Indonesia should understand my preferences, familiarities and cultural norms when I alight at Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. It is my obligation to learn about their custom.

While I am at a complete disadvantage from a language, transportation or communication standpoint, it is my responsibility to make the effort required to understand the environment. I have had the great advantage of meeting many Indonesians during my stays that were not only generous and friendly, but were concerned about the same things that mattered to me. I was embraced repeatedly by the youth, who were particularly warm, curious and keen to connect.

Speaking out in Ubud

Many travellers descended on the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali in October this year from all over the globe. The increased foreign and domestic attendance illustrated that people continue to have a strong interest in the literary arts, freedom of expression and all which that encompasses.

The controversy of censorship over not only the 1965 genocide events but also the Bali mangrove landfill discussion only increased the public's collective interest as reflected by the abundant attendance and the crescendo from social media. It was no surprise that the local government's censorship bought incredible promotion to the UWRF that money just couldn't buy. It laid the groundwork for continued robust subject matter to be included in all literary festivals. Clearly, this is the way forward now.

So while the official warnings circled like predatory birds overhead, there was a camaraderie of disdain and a rejection of the silence imposed. The forbidden stories oozed from dark corners like 'Texas Tea' from an oil well. Those that attended or intended to speak engaged in a wonderful creative objection that manifest itself every day in a different way.

These are the things that we need to learn about Indonesians that there is a steamy, creative, spicy sweet relentlessness as well as an unease about the status quo and the unspoken histories, not only from those who have lived through it, but by the youth who are dissatisfied with the camouflage and cover-ups. Enquiring minds want to know. While not as blunt as a Californian style protest, their shape-shifting techniques and vocalization through the arts of their discontent was particularly inspiring to this product of the Civil Rights movement. This is how real democracies evolve with creative courage and fluid movements, steady resolve and visual excitement, as witnessed at the 2015 Jakarta Biennale or the haunting Rekoleski Memori in Jakarta at Taman Ismail Marzuki. The eyes are firmly on the prize.

Culinary delights

All of these experiences were strung together with the diverse culinary heritage which is Indonesia. Learning about geography though cultural dishes is an indelible learning experience. My Indonesian hosts made sure that I was treated to a different regional cuisine every day. From Makassar and Sulawesi, fresh fish with a dynamite sambal. Yes, I was cautioned and yes I survived its heat. I am from California after all, not your average Anglo Gringo. In fact I find Indonesia to have a similar socio-tempo, color and movement as the passion of Latino culture which is also synonymous with California.

The Sundanese experience was so good, we went twice. Local chicken, corn fritters, water spinach with garlic, fried tempe and again a different sambal. There was Padang cuisine with rendang chicken with a green sambal and cassava leaves. The peppery Acehnese noodles in a firey red sauce was certainly near the top of my list. Lip-smacking.

Just when I thought it could not get any better, we went to what was described as a working class Sundanese cafe downtown. The array of fried fish, towering pots of hot fish soups, crunchy whole prawn wonton-like crackers, banana leafed packets of tempe, tofu, chicken or mushroom fillings was endless. Huge tubs of hot rice, cooked or fresh greens and a stone bowl of ruby red sambal on every table made this my favorite place. It was serve yourself style and you paid by the honor system. Imagine that.

At home, I was spoiled with fresh fragrant fish stews, fried sweet potato, deep fried banana, French toast with honey and avocado, black rice with coconut milk and green bean breakfast. The local Maduranese chicken boy in the neighborhood reliably churned out char-grilled chicken satay on sticks for that quick drive thru pickup. No KFC and no Maccas. No problem. In all my travels, I rarely saw a Westerner and I certainly did not notice any local large oval shaped torsos waddling along. Clearly this diet of fresh ingredients prepared daily is a healthy approach. And I am more than happy to report (as is always the worry of Westerners abroad) that I did not get sick. Not even once. I was the picture of health.

I have been back from my second Jakarta trip now only a few days, have purchased my third round-trip ticket for mid 2016 and am fit for travel. When I started this year, I never thought that I would be making a trip to Jakarta. Now I have made two already.
I have wandered through the historical precincts, the markets, been stranded in traffic jams and wallowed in arts exhibitions. More importantly, I have met many Indonesians who hope for a more progressive and humane approach, freedom of speech and acknowledgement of history. I have been physically embraced by youth and have made friends for life with those who operate in a parallel universe to me, bonded by strong emotional experiences and a shared vision for a world in which we all want to belong.

That's the kind of relationship we want to have, not just a partnership with nations but with real ties between people if we are going to progress in this region and survive political misadventures that periodically get in the way.

Mary Farrow is American writer and human rights activist. She lives in Melbourne and can be reached at

Monday, January 11, 2016

So near yet so far: Why we love Japan and distrust Indonesia

What’s to blame for poor Australia-Indonesia relations?

Welcome to 2016 and the perennial question: how can we get a warmer relationship with the people next door even if they’re tepid about us?

In 2013 ANU strategic studies Professor Hugh White wrote:

It will not be easy because in almost every dimension of national life – geography, history, economics, religion, language and culture – Australia is as different from Indonesia as two countries can be.
His comments could have been published yesterday; they’ve not been gainsaid, only highlighted by others to illuminate the contrasts.

Yet applying all White’s factors – and particularly history – distant Japan is the country we should most distrust and our northern neighbour the one we should like best. Curiously the reverse holds.
We fought a vicious war against the East Asian nation bent on conquest. Its fanatical military was as inhuman towards prisoners as ISIS extremists are today. The Japanese bombed our northern ports and came close to invading.

The generation that suffered hated the enemy and passed down its abhorrence. Loathing lapsed as Japanese technology triumphed; we found Toyotas efficient and – traitorous to confess – hardier than Holdens.

We got a taste for sushi and tempura but found the language difficult and culture opaque. They have a far-right military group glorifying its evil past, and which still finds ‘sorry’ the hardest word. They continue to slaughter sea mammals and ignore our outrage.

Yet this month one-time Australian ambassador to Japan John McCarthy told ABC Radio our friendship with Japan is ‘the closest relationship we have in Asia’. His former department says this is ‘underpinned by a shared commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.’

On his pre-Christmas trip to Tokyo Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull joined the chorus: ‘There has never been a better time to be investing in the friendship between Australia and Japan’.
Although Turnbull added that he was ‘very disappointed’ with Japan’s decision to resume whaling in Antarctic waters that didn’t stop him inviting PM Shinzo Abe to Australia this year. He was officially last in Canberra in 2014 when he addressed the Federal Parliament.

Turnbull also posed with ASIMO, labelled ‘the world’s most advanced humanoid robot’.
Contrast this enthusiasm with Turnbull’s earlier visit to Jakarta, promoted as a chance to reset the relationship following the execution of two Australian drug traffickers.

Unlike his predecessor Turnbull didn’t remind President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo of Australia’s aid after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

Instead he reached back seven decades, overlooking the point that the unions did much of the heavy lifting in helping decolonise the archipelago:

One of the shining moments, proudest moments (in) Australia’s contribution to global affairs was the diplomatic support provided in the immediate post war era for Indonesia’s struggle for independence and sovereignty.
If this heartstring pluck was supposed to inspire a tear and a hug, it didn’t work. Even after more than a year in the job the leader of the world’s third largest democracy still does banal well.
Jokowi replied: ‘The close proximity of our two countries is a fact.’
Turnbull did snap selfies but in a grossly overcrowded and basic market. If he did offer a visit the card wasn’t opened.

The prelude to Turnbull’s trip was a deputation of 344 businesspeople encouraged by the perpetual alerts that Indonesia is too big and important to ignore.

It’s by far the largest economy in Southeast Asia and expanding fast. The World Bank reports it’s ‘now one of Asia Pacific’s most vibrant democracies that has maintained political stability and emerged as a confident middle-income country.’

Australia relies on exports of primary produce, modern technology and efficient services. We’re the country next door but do little business with our giant neighbour. There used to be 400 Australian companies; now there’s 250.

By contrast Japan is Australia’s second-largest export market and fourth-largest source of foreign investment.

Turnbull’s rhetoric was later warmed up by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. As a prelude to a December meeting with her counterpart Retno Marsudi (plus defence ministers) she said: ‘Australia enjoys a constructive partnership with Indonesia, which is vital to our economic, strategic and security interests.’

All important, but no mention of friendship. Or culture, education, science, art, invention and innovation that accompanies talk about Japan – just the standard trinity of business suits, planners with portfolios and uniforms with guns.

Although the Lowy Institute’s poll on our feelings towards Indonesia show they’ve cascaded to the lowest point since 2005, (on a par with Russia and Egypt), we certainly like Japan, ranking the country just below Germany, the US, UK and New Zealand.
And they seem to like us; more than 350,000 Japanese visit Australia every year. The number from Indonesia is less than half, though paradoxically we send more than a million in the other direction.
Most head to Bali which even DFAT has trouble recognising as part of the Republic. Its travel warnings state: ‘We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Indonesia, including Bali’.

Do we find it easier to relate to the Japanese because they play rugby (introduced by former Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs player Max Mannix), drink grog, work hard, are smart innovators, don’t bother others with their religion and have rapidly adapted to Western ways and values?
In 1945 both nations started with huge handicaps. The Indonesians fought a guerrilla war for four years to expel the colonial Dutch and consolidate their independence.

Japan had been bombed with atomic weapons. Almost all its industry had been destroyed. The Allies’ occupation lasted for seven years. But by 1949 Japan had won its first Nobel Prize. It now has 24, mainly in physics. We have 13. Indonesia has none.

Japan joined the UN in 1956; instead of dwelling on its catastrophic and humiliating defeat the nation set out to rebuild and learn; it’s now the world’s third largest economy with a population one-third of Indonesia’s 250 million.

Till a year ago Indonesia was our major aid recipient and (Bishop again) a ‘trusted partner.’ If that’s the best we can say this commentary could be recycled a year hence.

If we can get close to the Japanese, why not the neighbours? They are overwhelmingly friendly and funny, their culture and country alluring. What’s the problem — Indonesia or us? Readers’ suggestions welcome.

Australian journalist and author Duncan Graham lives in East Java and writes for the Indonesian media.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Jokowi's new foreign policy approach for Indonesia

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has forged a new foreign policy approach for Indonesia since assuming office in October 2014.

The Jokowi Administration’s foreign policy is predicated on maintaining Indonesian sovereignty and intensifying economic diplomacy. These priorities represent a significant departure from those of Jokowi’s predecessor, former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY).

Indonesia’s foreign policy under SBY was characterised by outward-looking internationalism. SBY believed “free and active” engagement in multilateralism was the most ”constructive” way of fulfilling Indonesia’s national interests. The SBY Administration saw Indonesia take independent positions on major international issues, such as the conflict in Syria and climate change, while actively engaging in multilateral forums including the G20, the United Nations and the WTO.

SBY was a proponent of Indonesia’s role as a shaper of regional norms and regimes. In 2013, SBY’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa asserted, ‘Indonesia has always projected itself as part of the solution’. Furthermore, SBY saw ASEAN as the primary framework through which to pursue regional solutions. The former President actively promoted democracy and human rights and was instrumental in the formation of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. Under SBY, ASEAN formed the “cornerstone” and “mainstay” of Indonesia’s foreign policy. Moreover, SBY believed that ‘ASEAN should continue to be the centre of gravity of the integration process,’ which would see the eventuation of the ASEAN Community.

Observers have described Jokowi’s foreign policy approach as inward looking and reflective of a narrow nationalism. These labels stand directly opposed to SBY’s stance, which rejected ‘narrow nationalism’ in favour of ‘outward looking nationalism.’

Indeed, Jokowi has not demonstrated his predecessor’s keenness to promote Indonesia’s role as a shaper of regional norms. In fact, Jokowi has expressed his frustration at the failure of multilateral institutions – including the UN, World Bank, ADB, and IMF – to deliver solutions to the challenges confronting the global economy. Moreover, Jokowi has signalled an end to SBY’s “thousand friends, and zero enemies” mission statement.

Following his first round of significant multilateral meetings as President in November 2014 at the G20, ASEAN Summit and APEC, Jokowi claimed he would prioritise relationships that afforded significant benefits for Indonesia, saying ‘If It’s not beneficial, I won’t do it’.

In September 2015, Foreign Minister Marsudi defended the Jokowi’s Administration’s foreign policy approach, asserting that Jakarta had conducted over 100 bilateral meetings while maintaining a “rock solid commitment” to international engagement. However, her speech noticeably lacked a single reference to ASEAN, as is customarily expected in such a statement from an Indonesian foreign minister. Indeed, Jokowi’s retreat from ASEAN was verified when Rizal Sukma, Jokowi’s foreign policy advisor, declared ‘We used to say that ASEAN is the cornerstone of our foreign policy. Now, we say ASEAN is a cornerstone of our foreign policy’.

Some commentators noted that SBY’s departure would leave a “void” in the foreign policy realm that Jokowi may not be able to fill. Certainly, SBY’s leadership provided the political stability and economic growth conducive to a more activist foreign policy. It must be acknowledged, however, that SBY’s focus on foreign relations left a large volume of domestic issues – such as infrastructure, healthcare, and corruption – unaddressed in Indonesia. Jokowi’s inward looking tendency reflects his recognition that these pressing issues, which affect the immediate wellbeing of Indonesians, must be addressed.

Jokowi has not lost interest in foreign policy but simply possesses a different understanding of what constitutes “constructive” foreign policy to SBY. Jokowi’s concentration on bilateral relationships reflects his administration’s prioritising of results-driven foreign policy. The President’s attention on domestic reform means that he is inclined to only pursue foreign policy that has the capacity to directly benefit the domestic agenda and the Indonesian people – hence the “pro-people diplomacy”.
Jokowi’s Global Maritime Fulcrum policy, recognised as his signature foreign policy, provides a good example of Jakarta’s new approach.

The policy is strategically designed to address the massive infrastructure development required to unlock Indonesia’s domestic economic integration and drive growth. As such, Jokowi perceives the strengthening of bilateral, rather than multilateral, relationships as the most efficient policy for attracting foreign investment to meet the USD $6 billion required to develop Indonesia’s port infrastructure.

While the rationale behind Jokowi’s foreign policy reorientation can be understood, Indonesia’s retreat from its engagement with ASEAN still presents a major challenge for the organisation’s objectives. In particular, the success of the ASEAN Community launch on December 31 2015 is at stake. The perception that Indonesia – as ASEAN’s de facto leader that comprises 40 percent of ASEAN’s total population and GDP – has withdrawn its commitment to the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) could have significant impact on other member states’ willingness to compromise and integrate.

Jokowi’s hardline approach to defending its sovereignty, particularly in the maritime domain, has potential to become a divisive force within ASEAN. Jakarta’s sinking of 38 illegal fishing vessels belonging to ASEAN states in August demonstrates Jokowi’s commitment to delivering on his promises and not shying away from tensions with Indonesia’s neighbours.

ASEAN states should capitalise on Jokowi’s conviction to stamp out illegal fishing and establish permanent mechanisms to deal with transnational crime more broadly. An ASEAN-led framework would encourage Jakarta to rediscover its leadership role in a multilateral setting while presenting a cost-effective solution for its stagnant economy.

As for the AEC, ASEAN and Jakarta must jointly commit to engaging and empowering Indonesia’s vulnerable small and medium enterprises, which are inadequately prepared for enhanced competition compared with their counterparts in Singapore and Malaysia. Ultimately, engaging ordinary Indonesians at the grassroots level, particularly given Jokowi’s people-centred priorities, is paramount to reinvigorating Jakarta’s commitment to regional integration.

Sophie Qin is currently undertaking a Masters of International Relations at the University of Melbourne. She is also an AIIA National Office Intern. This article may be republished under a Creative Commons License.

Published December 23, 2015