Comparative Southeast Asian Military Modernization – II

Regional Leadership through Strength?: Indonesian Foreign and Security Policies in Southeast Asia

With the enthusiasm surrounding the election of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, some have again speculated as to whether Indonesia will become the regional leader in Southeast Asia. That was the central question behind Joseph Chinyong Liow’s “Can Indonesia Fulfill Its Aspirations to Regional Leadership?” in which he argues that those aspirations are unlikely to be fulfilled, especially if it continues to focus on the same sort of initiatives it pursued over the last decade—initiatives that were “long on ambition but short on substance.” Unable to explain how such grand ideas would work in practice, Indonesia garnered little support from its Southeast Asian neighbors. In the future, Liow contends, such initiatives would face even higher hurdles. They would have to overcome new obstacles created by changes in the strategic environment due to the intensification of rivalries between Asia’s major powers, like China and Japan.

Instead, Liow believes that Indonesia should channel its leadership ambitions in more concrete ways. He highlights successful contributions to regional stability and security when it has been engaged in “low-key, discrete efforts, including mediation, dialogue facilitation, and the exercise of its good offices.” While I concur with Liow’s pessimism regarding Indonesia’s ability to stake a claim to regional leadership through high-profile initiatives, I believe that Indonesia could emerge as a regional leader through yet another path.

If Jokowi manages to implement the pledges he made during his election campaign, Indonesia would find itself with a different sort of regional heft. Among his most ambitious pledges was one to increase Indonesia’s defense spending from 0.8 percent to 1.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product over the next five years, which would provide the resources needed for the Indonesian military to meet the requirements of its 2010 Strategic Defense Plan. The plan envisions building a “Minimum Essential Force” that consists of 180 modern combat fighter aircraft and a “Striking Force” of some 110 warships. Such military power would go a long way to helping the region balance China’s military capabilities and give Indonesia a bigger role in regional foreign and security affairs.

Of course, that could prove controversial within not only the region, but also Indonesia. Many in the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs have traditionally not seen Indonesia in those terms. They would rather see Indonesia as a country with “a thousand friends and no enemies.” Hewing to that line, they believe Indonesia should play a modest role in regional affairs and avoid conflicts involving major powers. Domestic critics fear a new approach as merely a way to justify the promotion of international interests over national ones. Those in Indonesia’s Ministry of Defense (and surely the country’s last Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs) have always been conscious of Indonesia’s security interests at home, but they may now be growing more aware of those abroad. During the Cold War, military officers worried about the potential for internal communist unrest. Today, they worry about Islamic militants, but they have become apprehensive about Indonesia’s external security too. Along with the rest of maritime Southeast Asia, they have watched China’s actions in the South China Sea with concern, particularly as those actions have crept closer to Indonesian waters.

Already we have seen daylight between the two ministries in how they responded to China’s unveiling of a new official representation of its national territory in early 2014. The new map depicted Chinese claims to the South China Sea as an extension of continental China. Many Southeast Asian observers took the new representation as a hardening of Chinese maritime claims in the region. China’s acceleration of its land reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands during the summer deepened Southeast Asian worries. Unfortunately for Indonesia, Chinese claims in the South China Sea include a sizable portion of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Natuna Islands, where most of the country’s offshore natural gas reserves are located.

China’s new map spurred the office of Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs into action. Fahru Zaini, the assistant to the first deputy of the office, arranged a trip for journalists to Natuna Island to impress upon them the preparations that the military was making in the area in case China tried to enforce its claim over the waters of Indonesia’s EEZ. Soon after, Indonesia’s army announced that it would deploy an infantry battalion to the island; the navy said that it would upgrade a nearby naval base; and the air force promised that it would expand the island’s Ranai air base so that a new Su-30 fighter squadron could be based there. As if that was not enough, General Moeldoko, chief of the Indonesian armed forces, wrote a long op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he clearly pointed to China’s claims as the reason for the military’s decision to strengthen its defenses around the Natuna Islands.1

It seemed as if Indonesia had broken its public silence about its maritime dispute with China in the South China Sea, until Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs backed away from the military’s vocal reaction. It downplayed Zaini’s comments and the military’s buildup in the Natuna Islands. Indonesia’s foreign minister Marty Natalegawa reiterated the ministry’s long-stated position: “Between Indonesia and China, there is no territorial dispute.” (Strictly speaking, his statement is true; China does not claim Indonesian territory, just a part of its EEZ.) After all, the ministry may have reasoned, any admission that there is a dispute between China and Indonesia might lend credence to Chinese claims. Hence, Natalegawa went out of his way to underscore the lack of conflict between the two countries. He even pointed out that Jakarta had actually encouraged Chinese investment on Natuna Island.2

To outside observers at the time, Indonesian foreign and security policy seemed split. So far, neither Jokowi’s new foreign minister Retno Marsudi nor his new defense minister Ryamizard Ryamizard has clarified what the future direction of Indonesia’s foreign relations will be. In the days before the presidential inauguration in October, Retno only commented that after she took office “there will be no other words than ‘work and work,’” and a week after the inauguration, Ryamizard put off media questions, saying: “I don’t want to speak presumptuously. I’m awaiting the president’s roadmap.” 3

But Jokowi’s focus has always been on domestic issues. He is inexperienced in foreign affairs and may well defer to his more experienced ministers. Unfortunately, his new foreign affairs and defense ministers could scarcely be more different. Retno was a diplomat whose appointment surprised many. Although she spent her entire career within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was Indonesia’s ambassador to the Netherlands, she was not a political insider in Jakarta. Without direct experience with the military, it stands to reason that she has little influence within its circles. Conversely, Ryamizard is an old hand in Jakarta politics. He rose through the ranks during the rule of Suharto in the 1990s and became Indonesia’s army chief of staff between 2002 and 2005. During his tenure, he took a hard line against separatists in Aceh and Papua (for which human rights groups criticize him), but he is widely respected within the military and considered a champion for a stronger defense. If one believes that the two ministries will reflect their leaders’ outlooks, one could easily see how they might pull in different directions.

One could also see mixed messages from the Indonesian military. Even as General Moeldoko was cautioning China over its assertiveness, he was also deepening its military engagement with China. On a trip to Beijing in March, Moeldoko discussed defense procurement and industrial collaboration with his Chinese counterparts. Much of their discussion centered on China’s C-705 anti-ship missile, which Jakarta hopes to manufacture and export. The Indonesian navy also plans on equipping its new KCR-40 class of fast attack craft, designed to protect Indonesia’s maritime borders, with the missile. Then in September, the Indonesian media reported that Jakarta was evaluating the acquisition of Chinese over-the-horizon radars for its US-funded Integrated Maritime Surveillance System. The system was intended to help Indonesia better monitor its waters, including those around the Natuna Islands. While these may simply be examples of Indonesia seeing China as a more reliable arms supplier than the West (given its past sanctions), such procurement practices ensure that China will have intimate knowledge of key Indonesian military sensors and weapons, hardly ideal for Indonesia’s frontline forces.4

For the last two decades or so, Indonesia could allow its foreign and security policies to pursue separate agendas without too much fear of consequence. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States could still guarantee the security of the region, even from afar (and if engaged in conflicts elsewhere). Indonesian foreign policy could afford to be idealistic, while its security policy focused on separatist threats from within. But now that is changing. China’s new political assertiveness and military might have pushed foreign and security policy considerations closer together throughout the region. Indonesia can no longer reasonably hope to aspire to regional leadership, if it ever could, based on vague principles alone.

For Indonesia, the question is how its foreign and security policies will interact. In the years ahead, the security of national sovereignty will become a bigger concern in its foreign relations. That will constrain Indonesia’s ability to pursue its traditional “free and active” foreign policy. It is possible that Ryamizard’s Ministry of Defense will find a bigger voice in Jokowi’s cabinet than Retno’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With a beefed-up military, Indonesia may become another counterweight (even if not balancer) in Southeast Asia to China’s rise. It might also become a better mediator for South China Sea negotiations, particularly if it can lend its weight to policing outcomes. Of course, greater Indonesian military strength would also make some, notably Malaysia and Singapore, nervous. Still, the region could come to see Indonesia as a practical leader, even if its efforts are not as low-key or discrete as in the past.5

At this writing, there is little evidence to indicate which views (or ministries) will ultimately drive Jokowi’s foreign and security policies. Speculating on the basis of his ministers’ backgrounds, it would appear that Ryamizard, a political insider, might have an edge over Retno. Certainly, more will be known after Indonesia publishes its 2015 defense white paper. That will better define how Jokowi’s administration sees Indonesia’s place in the region. Meanwhile, there has been one clue. Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Tedjo Edy Purdijatno, recently said in his first interview that the administration still intends to sharply increase defense spending and inaugurate a new coast guard to protect the country’s maritime borders.6 That suggests Jokowi is prepared to lean further forward on defense and that Indonesia may yet have a chance to take a greater regional role. Now if only Indonesia’s legislators give him the resources to do so.


1. In October, General Moeldoko backpedaled from his April op-ed comments regarding China. He said that he wanted “to clarify that we currently do not have a dispute with Beijing over its claims in the South China Sea.”

2. Similar reasoning was behind Japan’s refusal to admit that it had a territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands in the East China Sea. “Indonesia pernah sampaikan keberatan atas peta Natuna,”, March 19, 2014,

3. Chris Blake, “Indonesian Defense Chief May Smooth Path for Army Novice Widodo,” Bloomberg, October 30, 2014,; Michael Bachelard, “Indonesia’s new President Joko Widodo announces cabinet,” Sydney Morning Herald, October 27, 2014.

4. Jon Grevatt, “China-Indonesia sign remote-sensing MoU,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, October 14, 2014; Ridzwan Rahmat, “Indonesian attack craft complete test of C-705 missile system,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, July 31, 2014.

5. Bagus Saragih, “Retno must leave behind SBY’s diplomacy, says expert,” Jakarta Post, October 27, 2014.

6. Kanupriya Kapoor and Randy Fabi, “Indonesia to create new coastguard, boost defense spending,” Reuters, November 13, 2014,