Webinar on “Has Indonesia Resumed Leadership Role in Southeast Asia under Jokowi?”

In this webinar, Dr Leo Suryadinata discussed Indonesia’s foreign policy trajectories and leadership, particularly under President Joko Widodo’s administration.


Wednesday, 12 January 2022 – The Indonesia Studies Programme organised a webinar entitled “Has Indonesia Resumed Leadership Role in Southeast Asia under Jokowi?”, featuring Dr Leo Suryadinata, Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. This webinar presented an extended analysis from the second and revised edition of his book, Indonesia’s Foreign Policy under Suharto: Inspiring to International Leadership. Dr Siwage Dharma Negara, Co-coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS, moderated the session.

Dr Leo Suryadinata discussed Indonesia’s foreign policy trajectories. With Dr Siwage Dharma Negara as moderator of the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

To begin, Dr Suryadinata presented continuities and changes in Indonesia’s foreign policy. As the largest country in Southeast Asia, both in terms of geographical and population size, he argued that Indonesia has continued to have a persistent perception of its leadership role in Southeast Asia since the Sukarno era. Indonesia has also faced changes in both the domestic political system and the international & regional environment, including a decline in Russian power, the rise of China, and US-China rivalry.

In the post-Suharto era, Dr Suryadinata observed that Indonesia’s foreign policy had been overlooked as the subsequent presidents were busy with domestic affairs and overcoming the economic crisis. The situation began to change when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) assumed the presidency in 2004. SBY was labelled as “Foreign Policy President” due to his active international engagements. His foreign policy slogan, “A thousand friends and zero enemies” had aided in increasing Indonesia’s presence in the international arena, such as the G-20. SBY was confident in interacting with other global leaders, including US President Barrack Obama. In ASEAN, the SBY administration also helped resolve the dispute on Preah Vihear Temple and draft the watered down 2012 ASEAN joint communique. Despite his active international gesture, Dr Suryadinata maintained that SBY’s role remained limited.

Unlike SBY, President Jokowi focused more on infrastructure projects and relied heavily on foreign policy advisors to handle Indonesia’s international and regional affairs. Despite concentrating on domestic issues and claiming to be less fluent in foreign policy during his initial years, Jokowi has evolved to become more active in the foreign-policy front throughout his term. The president had attended the G-20 summit in 2016, the OIC summit in 2017 and demonstrated support to the Palestine issue. He has become more active in his second term. Last year, Jokowi’s administration actively engaged in shuttle diplomacy on the Myanmar conflict. Finally, Jokowi’s Indonesia had assumed the G-20 chairmanship this year and attempted to champion the cause of developing countries

Dr Suryadinata noted that Jokowi has inherited SBY’s foreign policy approach towards China and developed even closer economic ties with the country. He also observed that Jokowi has become more militant and firmer than SBY concerning the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and sovereignty issues, evidently shown in the detainment of Chinese fishing boats and renaming of the North Natuna Sea. While Jokowi’s economic policies were leaning towards China, his Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto had moved closer to the US in the security field. Dr Suryadinata believed that Indonesia would maintain a free and active foreign policy to keep equal distance with two superpowers, the US and China. He asserted that the Indo-Pacific concept also manifests Jakarta’s position in the US-China competition which does not take a side in the superpowers’ rivalry.

Finally, Dr Suryadinata noted that Jokowi wanted to be remembered not only as an “infrastructure project president” but also as a strong president. Despite the ambitious plan to resume leadership in ASEAN and beyond, he argued that Indonesia would face an uphill task in achieving this goal as the country lacks military, economic, political influences, and modern technology.

The webinar concluded with a Q&A session that discussed issues ranging from the protection of Natuna EEZ, China’s support to Indo-Pacific outlook, the upcoming agenda for Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2023, Mynamar issues, Indonesia’s relations with Australia, Indonesia’s future relations with Israel, the country’s perspective on Belt and Road Initiatives, and Indonesia’s role in climate issues. The webinar attracted 82 participants from Singapore and abroad.

Over 80 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)