top of page

Jokowi’s Domestic Agenda is Damaging Indonesia’s Foreign Relations

Joko “Jokowi” Widodo became President of Indonesia in October 2014 promising that he would stem the tide of growing inequity, fix a receding domestic infrastructure, and have a hardline approach to political corruption. This premise has demanded that Jokowi be accountable to his electorate’s desire for change by making considerable alterations to the domestic situation.

However, unlike his predecessors Jokowi has not come from a political pedigree or apprenticed in the trenches of Indonesian bureaucratic politics. He entered his presidency raw with a minority government that has forced him to be submissive to the whim of power brokers within his own coalition and adhere to his opposition’s demands in order to pass legislation. This has seen him renege on his pre-election promise to elect ministers based on merit rather than political party preference and elitism, with less than a third having the required background for their ministerial positions. It also resulted in him attempting to appoint Commander General Budi Gunawan as police chief due to the pressure of his own party leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, with the former being subsequently investigated by Indonesia’s Corruption Commission (KPK). These events highlight just some of the instances that have compromised the integrity of Jokowi’s leadership and stifled effective governance. It has and will continue to force Jokowi to propagate inherent policy inconsistencies given he must constantly incorporate the demands of others in order to pass legislation in order to realise his agenda. This pandering to political sectarianism not only makes his policy platform hard to implement, but also makes it fragmented and ambiguous.

Jokowi’s greatest asset to overcome this is his ability to gather civil support and channel public pressure to convince the parliament to back his agenda. To this end he has initiated populist strategies that aim to assert the authority of the state and develop Indonesia’s maritime domain. In particular, Jokowi’s new ‘Maritime axis’ doctrine indicates the new government's ambition to address Indonesia’s outstanding inability to grapple with issues regarding maritime defense and maritime foreign policy, as well as enhance Indonesia’s geo-strategic interests and establish itself as the emerging authority within the region. This has seen the very public implementation of the ‘sink the vessels policy’, where Indonesia has destroyed foreign fishing boats that have unlawfully entered its maritime region. The Indonesian maritime naval forces (TNI) blew up 34 confiscated foreign vessels to celebrate the 70th year of Indonesian independence on 17 August 2015, and a few months earlier on 20 May sunk 41 foreign vessels to commemorate National Awakening Day. Indonesia’s neighbours, in particular Vietnam, have voiced their dissatisfaction over the sinking of their fishing vessels by sending diplomatic notes to Jakarta curtly reminding them of the effect that such bombastic acts have on their strategic partnerships. Reminiscent of actions within the Sukarno era, the Jokowi government's attempts to take advantage of maritime issues in order to whip up Indonesian nationalism in the midst of its declining public approval is likely continue to disrupt regional solidarity, particularly as Jakarta attempts to recover its status as an ASEAN leader.

A display of strong leadership by Indonesia in ASEAN is vital to resolving the South China Sea Dispute (SCS). Jokowi’s political agenda demands that he maintain Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty and protect the marine resources within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), while at the same time reduce the simmering rivalry between the great powers of US and China, and chaperone the peaceful resolution of territorial claims. This will be a juggling act that requires Jokowi to assert his authority over the TNI, who seem bent on setting their own agenda, and bring them into line with the foreign ministries diplomatic ambitions. If this does not occur we are likely to see Indonesian and Chinese tensions exacerbate into a potential confrontation that would result in Indonesia’s exclusion from Chinese economic investment, such as the US$40 billion ‘new silk road’ plan, and see Jakarta’s role in regional affairs compromised. Indeed, Jakarta’s diplomatic attempts to have all claimants sign a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea has been unsuccessful, with Beijing refusing to engage in any multilateral approaches.

Jokowi’s promise of domestic reform combined with political sectarianism and leadership inadequacies are propagating a populist and nationalistic Indonesian foreign policy strategy that is enhancing regional tensions. This is not only damaging Indonesia’s relations with its neighbours, but also threating foreign investment into the Indonesian economy that Jokowi needs to finance his agenda. Coupled with economic growth at its slowest in six years, the ability to for Jokowi to deliver on his domestic electoral promises is fading fast.

Lachlan Wilson is currently undertaking a Masters of International Relations at Flinders University with an interest in South East Asian and Middle Eastern political affairs and security concerns.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image Credit: ahmad syauki (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

bottom of page