Emerging global player - Indonesia’s fine balancing acts?

Updated On: May 16, 2006

Recent events on both international and domestic fronts have tested Indonesia’s foreign policy ambitions, especially its assumed act of balancing different interests as the nation’s attempts to redefine its position in the global geopolitical and economic arena, and perhaps assert unprecedented leadership.

President Yudhoyono’s bold keynote foreign policy speech last year signalled dramatic shifts in diplomatic conduct, as the country spearheaded moves to build bridges with Myanmar, and serve mediator roles for North and South Korea, including the recent nuclear crisis talks between Iran and the Western nations of US and Europe.

Indonesia’s recent success in the election to the UN Human Rights Council is a step closer towards fulfilling its ambitions to play a bigger role in the United Nations as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

At the risk of alienating its Western allies, especially the US, with whom Indonesia has recently renewed full military ties after 14 years, the country appears well-poised to buffer what some analysts see as an ominous divide between the Muslim and the non-Muslim world elicited by Iran’s dogged stance on its nuclear programme and an earlier international furore over the controversial Danish cartoons.  

Before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit on May 9, Indonesia had already declared public support for Iran's right to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful means, and earlier abstained to vote against Iran at an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meeting three months ago.

Overall, Indonesia can be seen to leverage upon three identities to command geopolitical and economic might through new attention in the region from both traditional and emerging superpowers, as well as key strategic antagonistic actors such as Iran and Myanmar.

The first identity Indonesia adopts is as an active and influential ‘Non-Aligned Movement state’ which Iran has systematically been courting in the past months before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit. The latter has also found in Malaysia a suitable partner to support its nuclear drive, but a pre-emptive May 5 long-distance call by US President Bush on Prime Minister Badawi dampened Malaysia’s support.

The second identity Indonesia adopts is as ‘regional oil giant’, and as the energy race heats up, Indonesia has also jumped into the fray.  An agreement was signed by Iran and Indonesia's state oil companies (PT Elnusa Harapan, subsidiary of PT Pertamina and National Iranian Oil Refinery & Distribution Co.) to build a US$5 billion 300,000 barrel-a-day oil refinery on Java during the Iranian president’s visit.

The energy agreement, as part of a US$600 million future negotiation plan, is a healthy marriage for Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil producer eager to seek new investment avenues out of alienation from the West, and Southeast Asia’s only OPEC member eager to reverse its oil net importer status.

Indonesia’s energy-drive motivation for supporting Iran was also revealed during the hosting of the fifth Developing Eight (D-8) (mostly Muslim country grouping ofBangladeshEgyptIndonesiaIranMalaysiaNigeriaPakistan and Turkey) summit on May 13. Having drafted and passed a resolution on the peaceful use of nuclear energy at the summit, Energy Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro, on the same day, announced Indonesia’s plans to build its first major nuclear power plant by 2015, and without expecting international opposition.

The third identity Indonesia adopts is as an affiliate of ‘moderate muslim democracy’, which Western nations are presently courting to combat terrorism. The European Union for example, is encouraging Indonesia to exert a moderating influence on groups in the Arab world such as Hamas in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

To avoid offending radical Islamic elements at home and escape the impression of supporting a fundamentalist Islamic regime, President Yudhoyono tactfully used his new D-8 chairmanship (last held by President Ahmadinejad) and leadership of the country with the world's largest Muslim population, to speak on behalf of the Muslim ummah (community), and rallied all Muslim nations to oppose terrorism, as well as for the international community to foster dialogue among civilizations.

Indonesia’s new foreign policy ambitions appear to pay dividends through the skillful maneuvering of the Iranian nuclear crisis that culminated with strong leadership out of the D-8 talks. Yet, looming close in the background are months of diplomatic conflict with Australia over Papua and the recent unrests in Timor Leste that are likely to test the future of Indonesia-Australia relations.

On May 12, Australia sent two amphibious navy troop transport ships to Timor Leste in response to unrest following last month’s riots by rebel soldiers. A May 13 Courier Mail (Australia) report even claimed preparations for a launch of the biggest (since the 1999 crisis) military taskforce of warships, armoured vehicles, helicopters and 450 troops by late next week. Such strong Aussie presence in Indonesian’s backyard may spell a dire run-in with Indonesia, whose sovereignty and leadership in the region has just acquired new reputation.

Aussie “threat” to Indonesia’s sovereignty also comes forth from the Papuan case where Australia granted temporary protection visas in March to 42 separatists from the island of Papua, a move that Jakarta saw as tacit support for Papuan independence. Just last month, President Yudhoyono claimed the relationship between the two nations was entering its most critical phase in decades.

In a bid to heal the diplomatic rift over Papua, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer expressed hope to meet his Indonesian counterpart in Singapore to discuss the matter. Canberra has also at the same time, introduced in Parliament new legislation on refugees.

On the domestic front, President Yudhoyono is also placing emphasis on improving foreign investment, announcing on May 10 the establishment of a special reform team to keep tabs on the country’s economic progress through reforms. This is perhaps to send another signal reflecting his seriousness in tackling domestic reforms as analysts and the business community remain skeptical about the pace of economic reform.


Bush, Badawi agree on Iran diplomacy (AFP/The Australian, 5 May 2006)

RI to push for resolution on nuclear energy usage (Jakarta Post, 9 May 2006)

Indonesia says it supports Iran's right to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful means (Jakarta Post, 10 May 2006)

Iran, Indonesia to sign $5 billion oil refinery agreement (Jakarta Post, 10 May 2006)

Iranian president courts Indonesian support (Jakarta Post, 11 May 2006)

Balancing game for RI over Iran's nuclear program? (Jakarta Post, 11 May 2006)

RI to help resolve Iranian nuclear row (Jakarta Post, 11 May 2006)

Yudhoyono forming reform team (The Straits Times, 11 May 2006)

Iran finds an ally in Indonesia (Asia times.com, 12 May 2006)

Ahmadinejad’s visit to Indonesia: A test for Jakarta's foreign policy (The Straits Times, 12 May 2006)

Talks on Papua dispute may be held in Singapore (The Straits Times, 12 May 2006)

Muslim states urged to catch up with rest of world (The Straits Times, 13 May 2006)

Aussie ships sent to Timor Leste (The Straits Times, 13 May 2006)

Ties now stretched to limit (The Daily Telegraph (Australia), 13 May 2006)

Taskforce ready to aid East Timor (The Courier Mail (Australia), 13 May 2006)

Indonesia plans to have nuclear plant by 2015 (AP/The Straits Times, 14 May 2006)

Malaysia urges Iran to seek diplomatic solution to nuclear stand-off (Bernama, 14 May 2006)