Sir Richard Gozney KCMG CVO
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Indonesia: non-aligned for its national interests and by instinct

Sir Richard Gozney KCMG CVO started his career as a junior diplomat in Jakarta in the 1970s.  He served as British Ambassador there in the 2000s. Later he was a Non-executive Director of a FTSE company with substantial mining interests in Indonesia.  He was British High Commissioner to two African countries, including Nigeria, was Governor of Bermuda and, most recently, Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Man.


Outsiders may wonder why a country of 280 million and the fourth most populous, with a strong economy and with more Moslems than any other, seems to avoid international controversy. Indonesia suffered in the 1950s and early ‘60s from the strident anti-imperialism of its first President, Soekarno. For the final 25 years of the twentieth century, its second President, Suharto, put it on the defensive by occupying East Timor. In the 21st century a consensus in Jakarta seems to hold that the national interest and perhaps the national psyche are better served by avoiding contention in most foreign policy issues. Instead, the focus is on foreign partnerships to strengthen the domestic economy. In the epic Indian story of the Mahabharata, popular with Indonesians and especially Javanese (whence all their elected Presidents so far), conflict and rivalry lead to grief for almost all members of the central family, the Kurawa and the Pandawa brothers.

Sometimes big countries choose not to roll up their sleeves and pitch into international issues. Even the United States has sometimes needed persuasion to intervene, whether in the World Wars or the Former Yugoslavia. Perhaps middle-sized countries are instinctively drawn to foreign policy activism? In any event in this century Indonesia has rarely seen its interests best served by taking a lead on the substance of issues. Indonesian governments have the will, the heft, and the means for activity, such as chairing the G20 in 2022. Wearing that hat President Joko Widodo saw President Putin and President Zelensky about the war in Ukraine: serious activity. He chaired the G20 well, leaving many thinking how much more activity Indonesia could usefully take on if it chose. However, on the substance of issues, after President Joko Widodo finishes his second term of office in 2024, we are likely to see caution persist.

In 1955 President Soekarno presided over the first ever Non-aligned Summit, with China and Vietnam to the fore. Indonesia’s four Presidents of the 21st century have taken a Non-aligned or an ‘active and free’ foreign policy more literally. “We must be the captain of our own ship” said President Widodo on closing the East Asia Summit in Jakarta in August this year. His emphasis on stability, and his call for East Asia to refrain from creating new tensions or conflicts, reflected his own instincts.

The international sections of Indonesian leaders’ major speeches have long been anodyne. When I tried to interpret President Suharto’s speeches for diplomatic colleagues in the 1970s some still struggled to stay awake. When I tried the same with fellow Ambassadors 20 years ago, President Megawati's and President Bambang Yudhoyono’s speeches did not catch fire, and I don’t think it was just my translation. The speeches were not meant to set the audience on fire: after President Soekarno’s feisty rhetoric 60 years ago and a brief reprise under the lively but sadly unsuccessful President Gus Dur (Abdulrahman Wahid) 20 years ago, anodyne, and broad brush have been judged good. Economic results, not high-flown promises, are what matter.

Since 1990 and after 25 years of refusing bilateral diplomatic relations and a domestic ban on manifestations of Chinese culture such as the public display of Chinese characters, Indonesia has warmed slowly towards China. While economically influential, unlike in Malaysia the Chinese diaspora is small and inter-ethnic strains are more modest. Of the ASEAN members Indonesia has the smallest direct interest in the South China Sea, although if China becomes more aggressive in the region other members will hope for a clear Indonesian position. China’s Belt and Road Programme reaches Indonesia and has just opened WHOOSH, a much-publicised high-speed train from Jakarta to Bandung, the provincial capital for the 50 million people of West Java. China is the country’s largest trading partner. However, suspicion persists: debate continues about the right level of Chinese investment in the country (much as the debate 50 years ago over the level of Japanese investment) and a recent survey found 60% of Indonesians wanting to see China restrained. And no Jakarta government will want to alienate the US. They are likely to try to avoid taking sides in China-US disputes.

Australia’s tie up with the US and UK in AUKUS, centred on nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian Navy, initially bothered Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, both expressing public concern over implications for the arms race and for power projection in the region. A visit to Jakarta by the Australian Prime Minister was put off. The AUKUS initiative split ASEAN, with key members not following Indonesia and Malaysia: Thailand was quiet and the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore even supportive.  

Ironically for a regional organisation originally prompted in 1961 by a need to constrain President Soekarno’s irredentism and revitalised 14 years later by Hanoi’s victory over Saigon and fears of more dominos falling, ASEAN, like Javanese culture, prides consensus and has neither endorsed nor criticised the AUKUS initiative; it seems to have accepted AUKUS as a new reality. Again, Jakarta will not want to alienate the US, nor the UK which is licensing the manufacture in Indonesia of two British frigates. And the Indonesian Armed Forces’ defence ties with Australia are important and strong.

Other international issues are not of the neighbourhood and exert less pressure for a partisan position. Israel/Palestine is an exception. Indonesian governments, like the country’s huge Moslem associations and community organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, have long valued their Middle Eastern links, historically strongest with Baghdad and Cairo, now also important with the Arabian Peninsula. Their support for an independent Palestine state is long standing and sincere, ever since they pointedly excluded Israel from the first Non-aligned Summit in 1955. The Palestinian Ambassador to Indonesia has been funded by Jakarta. Earlier in 2023 they showed no reflection of the rapprochement between some Gulf States and Israel and in October, at the outbreak of the Hamas-Israel War, the Indonesian Government were clear: while urging the immediate end to violence, they said ‘the root of the conflict, namely the occupation of Palestinian territory by Israel, must be resolved in accordance with parameters agreed at the UN’. In other words, there had to be two sovereign states. Indonesian politicians including aspiring Presidents are inclined to play the religious card a bit in campaign speeches and the Israel-Hamas War may give them extra scope in the run up to the Presidential elections of February 2024.

Elsewhere, Indonesia is unlikely to take a strong position although it can be tempted to try a moderating role. Defence Minister and general-turned-politician Prabowo is a strong personality with an un-Javanese reputation for taking on tough military fights, whether against the East Timorese or against student protests. He is a leading candidate for President in 2024, his third attempt. In June 2023 he proposed a demilitarised zone, UN Peacekeepers, and a referendum in what he called the territories disputed between Russia and Ukraine, in other words the Ukrainian regions occupied by Russia. Indonesia’s links with the Soviet Union and then Rusia have always been important, and their popular standing did not seem tarred by an anti-communist brush which painted China from the mid-1960s. The Indonesian Armed Forces fly Russian jets and helicopters and drive Russian infantry vehicles.  

For Indonesia, Defence Minister Prabowo’s initiative on Ukraine was an unusually high-profile proposal, albeit one which the Minister presumably knew would be rejected by Kyiv, as it was, quickly. However, it showed the West that Indonesia was not going to side with Ukraine, the EU, or NATO against Russia.

Standing back from most of the world’s contentious issues and prioritising economics, to meet the popular hope for rising prosperity in a middle-income country, has worked. When I first lived there in the 1970s the country’s GDP was less than 5% of that of the US. In the 2020s it is about 20%. In the late 70s I left a country with a life expectancy of about 45 years and an adult literacy rate of perhaps 65%. When I returned in 2000 the figures were over 65 years and 85%. The country had industrialised, producing, for example, over 1 million cars a year with 80-90% local content which soaked up many young workers.  

That was before Indonesia turned to democracy for the 21st century during which, notwithstanding some bumps, it has averaged economic growth of over 5% a year, the envy of many. Whether the country is led from 2024 by the present Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, by the present Governor of Central Java, Ganjar Pranowo, or by the previous Governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, (all three of them born in Java) it would take a surprising turn, in a country which does not relish surprises, for economic achievements to be gambled against foreign policy risks. In the Mahabharata, the only survivor among the Kurawas and the Pandawas is the one brother who eschews all vanity and pride.


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