President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s inaugural address on October 20 stressed Indonesia’s status as a maritime nation, highlighting its potential to become the maritime axis of the world through the cultivation of its assets.
Regarded by many as an excellent administrator, Jokowi is known for fighting corruption and for his unannounced personal visits to lower-level offices to examine their productivity. These blusukan (impromptu visits) are iconic of the popular new president’s intimate and “no-nonsense” approach to governance. Perhaps they are warranted on an international level, too.
As a result of substantial arms buildups across Asia and accelerating military modernization initiatives being undertaken by ASEAN member states, disputes in the South China Sea have never seemed more serious. Against China’s expansive “coast guard” and growing blue-water navy, ASEAN’s small member states stand little chance in bilateral negotiations with China. Only through collective efforts can Southeast Asia’s claimants on the South China Sea insist on meaningful discussions with China regarding territorial disputes.
ASEAN nations, previously content to let territorial disputes amongst themselves simmer on the backburner, can no longer afford this disunity now that China has made good on its claims within the Nine-Dash Line. As is evident in the expansion and modernization of their militaries, Southeast Asian states feel that they too must be prepared to stand their ground—but they have yet to do it in concert.
Last March, Indonesia repositioned itself in the South China Sea debacle by issuing official statements acknowledging a dispute with China regarding the Natuna Islands. This statement signaled a clear departure from Indonesia’s earlier policy of not acknowledging China’s claims on Indonesian territory and features located within Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
With China’s land reclamation projects underway, now is the time for Indonesia to engage its neighbors and to lead them towards substantial dialogues regarding territorial disputes that have plagued Southeast Asia for generations. As ASEAN’s largest economy and most populous nation, Indonesia is in a perfect position to confront the issue.
Leadership in ASEAN is sorely needed. Many observers have focused on ASEAN’s requirement for unanimity to understand why the Association has not more aggressively and jointly resisted China’s claims in the Nine Dash Line. This focus ignores a deeper and more malignant problem facing the ASEAN nations: a long history of border disputes in Southeast Asia that are considered inappropriate for discuss at ASEAN summits. Though Cambodia’s dissenting vote during the Phnom Penh ASEAN summit prevented ASEAN action on the South China Sea, it does not preclude the nations of Southeast Asia from working together to find a multilateral solution. Indonesia can assert and distinguish itself by leading ASEAN toward that solution.
Southeast Asian states’ extensive bilateral collaboration with external actors further signals a lack of confidence in the bloc’s ability to function in concert. Examples of this behavior include Japanese investment in Southeast Asian militaries, Vietnam’s successful wooing of Indian and Japanese support, and the recent new defense agreement between the Philippines and the United States. A lack of clarity in U.S. policy with respect to its “pivot to Asia” has forced Southeast Asian nations to continue seeking a regional power toward which they might rebalance against China’s more aggressive presence in the Pacific. Indonesia, with its popular and well-liked new leader, could be that power, either through ASEAN or independently.
Well-liked both domestically and abroad, Jokowi and his markedly transparent style of governance stand in contrast to military-controlled Thailand and the conservative Malaysian administration. Jokowi, popular and pragmatic, is an ideal figure around which ASEAN nations might rally in influencing China to begin honest negotiations regarding the South China Sea. As the largest state in ASEAN by population and GDP, Indonesia’s influence in the Association cannot be understated.
Yet it remains to be seen whether Jokowi is up to the challenge of regional leadership. The strong domestic focus and fix-it attitude that got Jokowi elected may not translate into as much enthusiasm for maximizing Indonesia’s potential as a leader of ASEAN. In this sense, Indonesia will have to weigh a focus on domestic issues such as the current fuel subsidy crisis versus sustained international engagement. Despite his concerns, Jokowi’s administration will likely see eye-to-eye with Prabowo’s conservative Merah-Putih Coalition majority in the House with respect to the expansion of the Indonesian military.
There are some signs that the new administration in Jakarta will aim to make progress both domestically and abroad. Jokowi’s new Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, has stated that she will no longer follow former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s policy of “1000 friends and zero enemies,” instead favoring a firmer Indonesian stance on international disputes related to Indonesian sovereignty. During Marsudi’s tenure as foreign minister, she aims to introduce a “pro-people” policy that includes increased engagement of foreign diplomats through the use of Jokowi’s trademark blusukan.
It is time for Jokowi to loudly and clearly convey to ASEAN member states that he will work to make good on his promises made at his inauguration: Indonesian territorial integrity is paramount. At this stage, the best means for following through will be engagement with other ASEAN states to produce a unified stance on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Balancing against China in the South China Sea may also have the happy consequence of reducing territorial disputes between the ASEAN states themselves, a win for everyone involved.
Josh Goodman is an MA candidate in international affairs at the George Washington University. His studies focus on security in the Indo-Pacific.