https://www.eurasiareview.com-By Alfin Febrian Basundoro*
Relations between Indonesia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are again strained. On December 1, 2021, some diplomats representing the PRC government issued a protest letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia (Kemlu) regarding the exploration of natural resources in North Natuna waters and joint military training that was previously carried out by the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI). However, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Indonesia, as a coastal state, has sovereign rights over natural resources in that water, considering its location in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Indonesia.
To date, the intrusion conducted by PRC in Natuna waters is still occurring. Sources from the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries of the Republic of Indonesia noted that more than 1,000 foreign vessels, some of which were PRC’s marine militia vessels. Those vessels were fishing vessels that commonly catch fish in the offshore waters but were then armed, and some were manned by paramilitaries and escorted by coast guard vessels. The maritime patrols that are routinely conducted by the Indonesian Navy, the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla), as well as the Directorate General of Surveillance and Control of Marine and Fishery Resources (PSDKP) of the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries of Indonesia, have not been able to effectively dispel those foreign vessels.
If drawn back, Indonesia has also repeatedly become a victim of the geopolitical intrusion of several countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Not only related to China, but just moments before the Indonesia-China diplomatic chaos occurred, Australia, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US) also declared the formation of the AUKUS—a defense pact which was considered by the Indonesian government to be a challenge for regional stability. Of course, the decisive efforts of various national policymakers are increasingly crucial to safeguarding Indonesia’s sovereignty amid the increasingly strong vortex of regional instability between China and the US.
Has Free and Active Foreign Policy really been Effective?
Along with the increasingly widespread intrusion of Indonesian national sovereignty as has occurred above, the implementation of a free and active principal, which is still a principle for Indonesia’s foreign policy, needs special attention. According to Rizal Sukma’s (2019) analysis, free and active principal of Indonesian foreign policy has a pragmatic essence—by implementing it, Indonesia is expected to gain political advantages, including in dealing with various regional instabilities. This is considering that Indonesia has good relations with the two superpowers mentioned above. However, over time, it seems difficult to describe Indonesia’s prospects amid regional geopolitical rivalries, especially with the implementation of free-active politics that has not been effective and has not been following the basic essence of the effort to obtain said advantages and bargaining power.
So far, the implementation of free-active politics has always been imagined with Indonesia’s active role in the process of diplomacy, upholding world peace, and international organizations. For example, Indonesia’s centrality in ASEAN, Indonesia’s role in various conflict resolutions, and in establishing relations with various countries in the world. On the other hand, various geopolitical intrusions that have strengthened in the past decade have indirectly become evidence of the lack of bargaining power that Indonesia has to maintain its sovereignty and national security. Thus, the implementation of free-active politics in the future needs to be directed to strengthen strategic autonomy, which is the fundamental capital for Indonesia’s strategic position and bargaining value.
A Step Forward
This analysis suggests several main points that can be taken into account by policymakers to effectively implement free-active principles. First, awareness of the state of crisis needs to be emphasized, especially in interpreting the regional and international regimes that Indonesia must face. Although partnerships, improving bilateral relations or playing an active role in peace are priorities for the government of Indonesia in upholding its foreign policy, it cannot be denied that external threats to sovereignty can lurk at any time. It would be very good if situational awareness of the crisis was also involved in the formation of Indonesia’s foreign policy so that the advantages of Indonesia’s diplomacy could be balanced with the preparedness to face external threats. This effort will certainly involve elements of strategic defense and security, including the Indonesian Navy and Air Force, and latently will encourage the modernization of Indonesia’s defense sector.
Second, the synergy among strategic policymakers needs to be strengthened, especially among ministries, including Kemlu, the Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs and Investment (Kemenkomarves), and the Indonesian Ministry of Defense (Kemhan), which are spearheading international issues. Those three need to have a common vision in dealing with various international threats, especially regional threats in the Indo-Pacific. For example, when Kemlu is trying to deal with diplomatic threats from other countries, the Ministry of Defense can contribute to the threat deterrence process by formulating effective defense policies.
Third, even though Indonesia is considered as a central and natural leader in ASEAN, it seems that the organization has not been able to effectively become an arena to ward off geopolitical rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region. This is in line with the policy-making process in ASEAN, which focuses on norm-setting rather than concrete policy-making. Among them, ASEAN’s shared vision in the Indo-Pacific region (ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific/AOIP) contains mere declarations of cooperation instead of efforts to resolve regional geopolitical rivalries that threaten regional sovereignty and stability.
To compensate for this limitation, Indonesia needs to play a more active role in mini-lateral forums such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and AUKUS. The expansion of this partnership means Indonesia does not always rely on ASEAN to deal with regional strategic problems. This means that Indonesia, as a country with middle political power, still has strategic partners needed to strengthen bargaining power in the region. In addition, by partnering well with both ASEAN and the mini-lateral forums mentioned above, Indonesia has the flexibility to maneuver politically to avoid the possibility of being squeezed by the China-US rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. Indonesia can still strengthen economic and trade aspects by participating in various forums, declarations, and regulations prepared by ASEAN to strengthen regional solidarity and cooperation. On the other hand, by collaborating with mini-lateral forums, Indonesia can gain bargaining power in the political and security aspect.
Recalibration of Free-Active Politics
The considerations above can be seen as an effort to recalibrate the implementation of free-active politics. Indeed, this principle is still relevant to the objectives and implementation of Indonesia’s foreign policy, considering that Indonesia itself is not a superpower that can act at will in dealing with global political issues but must actively take part and be free to relate to other countries with the aim of partnership. However, this principle cannot always be interpreted textually. Along with the times and regional geopolitical dynamics, these principles need to be oriented more pragmatically and contextually by prioritizing national interests.
The aforementioned recalibration can be viewed positively to strengthen synergies among national strategic institutions, form wider partnerships with various regional powers—both state and international organizations, and increase situational awareness. Practically, free-active politics is no longer just a basic principle that is always echoed in various policies but has become an essential value that can strengthen Indonesia’s bargaining position internationally and support the realization of Indonesia’s national interests.
*Alfin Febrian Basundoro Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and research assistant of the Department of International Relations Universitas Gadjah Mada