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What Threat?

Leadership, Strategic
Culture, and Indonesian Foreign
Policy in the South China Sea

Yohanes Sulaiman*

Why is there  no balancing behavior in Southeast Asia vis-à-vis what many observers
see as a “Chinese threat,” especially in the case of Indonesia? Despite all the concerns
regarding the stability of the region, Indonesia is neither strengthening its power
projection capability nor building a coalition to address China’s growing power in
the South China Sea. Indonesia’s underbalancing behavior is the result of a strategic
culture that influences its military and foreign policy thinking on threat perceptions and
economic considerations, limiting the options that Indonesia can take vis-à-vis China. As
a result, China as a state is not seen as a major, direct, and immediate threat that would
warrant immediate action that may in turn jeopardize Indonesia’s larger interest. Instead,
domestic politics and security—especially public perceptions of how the government’s
friendship with China may benefit or hurt the government—remains the focus and the
priority of the government.

Key words: Indonesia, Joko Widodo, South China Sea, strategic culture, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono


关键词: 印度尼西亚, 佐科·维多多, 南海, 战略文化, 苏西洛·班邦·尤多约诺

*Yohanes Sulaiman is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Government, Universitas

Jenderal Achmad Yani.

DOI: 10.1111/aspp.12496
Asian Politics & Policy—Volume 11, Number 4—Pages 606–622
© 2019 Policy Studies Organization. Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Leadership, Strategic Culture, and Indonesian Foreign Policy      607

¿Qué amenaza? Liderazgo, cultura estratégica y política exterior de Indonesia en el Mar

Meridional de China
¿Por qué no hay un comportamiento equilibrado en el sudeste asiático frente a lo que
muchos observadores ven como una "amenaza china", especialmente de Indonesia? A
pesar de todas las preocupaciones con respecto a la estabilidad en la región, Indonesia no
está fortaleciendo su capacidad de proyección de poder ni está formando una coalición
para abordar el creciente poder de China en el Mar del Sur de China. El comportamiento
de desequilibrio de Indonesia es el resultado de una cultura estratégica de Indonesia que
influye en su pensamiento militar y de política exterior a través de las percepciones de
amenaza y consideración económica, lo que limita las opciones que Indonesia puede tomar
con respecto a China. Como resultado, China como estado no se considera una amenaza
importante, directa e inmediata que garantice una acción inmediata que pueda poner
en peligro el mayor interés de Indonesia. En cambio, la política interna y la seguridad,
especialmente cómo la percepción pública de la amistad del gobierno con China puede
beneficiar o perjudicar al gobierno, sigue siendo el foco y la prioridad del gobierno.

Palabras clave: Indonesia, Joko Widodo, Mar del Sur de China, Cultura estratégica, Susilo Bambang


Indonesia’s Foreign Policy and the South China Sea

O n June 23, 2016, in response to what many Indonesians believe to be Chinese

infringement on Indonesian territorial integrity, President Joko “Jokowi”
Widodo convened a limited cabinet meeting on board a navy corvette. During
this meeting, he ordered the Indonesian navy to step up patrols and to improve
the capabilities of the Indonesian military.
Indonesia has a small claim on the southern part of the South China Sea based
on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 that allowed
Indonesia to claim an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) over waters surrounding
the Natuna Islands. This claim, however, overlaps with China’s nine-dash line.
Confrontations between Chinese coast guard ships protecting Chinese fishing
boats and Indonesian naval patrols have taken place, leading Jokowi to conduct
his cabinet meeting in the disputed area.
Many interpreted the cabinet meeting as a strong signal from Indonesia that
it was finally taking a serious view of all the incursions by China and other
nations into Indonesia’s territory and EEZ (Kapoor & Jensen, 2016). Yet, since
then, Indonesia has not escalated the situation and instead returned to its default
mode in dealing with China, that is, engaging China by pushing for the agree-
ment on the Code on Conduct between countries having direct interests in the
South China Sea (Nurcahyani, 2018).
It could be argued that Indonesia simply picked the best approach, which is
working well so far, because at this moment, the region is peaceful. This, how-
ever, ignores the fact that the region is currently peaceful simply because the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states find it far more profit-
able to make economic deals with China than to challenge it (Emmerson, 2016).
More importantly, China wants it to be peaceful, because it is in China’s interest
to maintain peace at this point to strengthen its long-term position. To achieve
that, China has been quietly building more infrastructure in the disputed region,
608      Asian Politics & Policy—Volume 11, Issue 4—2019

and even putting in a fleet of offshore nuclear power platforms (Zhao, 2017). On
May 21, 2018, it even landed long-range bombers on an island in the South China
Sea (Feleke, 2018).
It is not that Indonesian decision makers are not wary or unconcerned about
China; as far back as 1966, most Indonesian leaders viewed China as “aggres-
sive” and “a serious threat to Indonesia,” with navy officers concerned about
“invading forces launched from Hainan Island” (Weinstein, 1976, pp. 93–94).
Although the relationship between both states has improved after both the res-
toration of diplomatic relations between Indonesia and China in 1990, and fur-
ther strengthening of Indonesia and China’s economic relations, many members
of the Indonesian elite still see China as a threat, especially after it embarked on
military modernization, and Indonesia had to respond by increasing its defen-
sive capabilities (Novotny, 2010). When currently retired Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo
was the head of the Indonesian military in 2016, he expressed his fear about
China’s island-building projects that would threaten Indonesia’s territorial in-
tegrity (“Panglima TNI,” 2016).
Domestically, the issue of “Chinese invasion” remains a potent issue that is
always used by unscrupulous political actors to score political gains. This is
not about China invading Indonesia per se; rather, China is accused of actively
sending fifth columnists to Indonesia. For example, an ethnically Chinese in-
cumbent governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahja Purnama, despite his perceived close
association with Jokowi and his stratospheric and enviable approval rating of
70% (Topshield, 2017), lost in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election that was
so tinged with ethno-religious slanders that it was dubbed as one of the most
divisive election campaigns Indonesia had ever seen (Jensen & Allard, 2017).
His opponents insinuated that China provided identity cards to illegal Chinese
voters to help Ahok to steal the election (Sulaiman, 2017). Even Jokowi had to
address a hoax that suggested that China was sending 10 million illegal workers
to Indonesia (Ihsanuddin, 2016) as an advance invasion force (Putra, 2016). The
issue was so potent that when only 38.9% of the respondents were aware of the
issue concerning illegal Chinese workers, more than half of them expressed dis-
pleasure over it, according to survey results from the respected Lingkaran Survei
Indonesia [Indonesia Survey Circle] (DHF, 2018).
Thus the puzzle: why there is no balancing behavior from Indonesia vis-à-vis
a Chinese threat, despite all the fear. Indonesia is neither strengthening its power
projection capability nor building a coalition to address China’s growing aggres-
siveness in the South China Sea (or at least to fulfill its security goal). In fact,
as noted by Fealy and White (2016), Indonesian military modernization is not
focused on maritime or power projection capabilities, which are needed to con-
front or check China’s growing threat in the South China Sea. Instead, it is fo-
cused on strengthening the army to improve internal security functions.
The answer is that Indonesia’s underbalancing behavior is the result of
Indonesia’s strategic culture that influences its threat perceptions, thus con-
straining the range of policies that Indonesia may take (Dueck, 2006, p. 36). At
the same time, various presidents’ own leadership styles have influenced how
Indonesia reacts to both systemic and domestic constraints, and what kind of
policy they finally picked from the range of policies available.
Leadership, Strategic Culture, and Indonesian Foreign Policy      609

Indonesia’s strategic culture distorts Indonesia’s perception of threat, push-

ing Indonesian military and policymakers to consider internal stability as the
top priority. This means that in order to maintain internal stability, successive
Indonesian governments need to focus on economic growth and to deal with for-
eign-influenced domestic threats. Any threat to Indonesia would be through fifth
columnists, instead of from direct military invasion. Therefore, the most recent
Defense White Paper (2015) stresses the need for the government to be aware
of any attempt by foreign countries to split Indonesia, citing the “Arab Spring,
political and security upheaval in Egypt, [and] civil wars in Iraq, Afghanistan,
Libya, and Syria” as examples of how states wage proxy wars as a 21st century
version of “divide and conquer” (Ministry of Defense (Indonesia), 2015, p. 11).
As a result, China as a state is actually not seen as a major, direct, and immedi-
ate threat, which warrants an immediate action that may jeopardize Indonesia’s
larger interest. Instead, domestic politics and security—especially how public
perception of the government’s friendship with China may benefit or hurt the
government—remains the focus and the priority of the government. In essence,
successive Indonesian presidents’ range of choices is limited by Indonesia’s stra-
tegic culture, and the policy choices that the presidents make depends on their
domestic calculations.
The structure of this article is as follows. First, I will first discuss the theoretical
argument on the impact of domestic politics and especially strategic culture on
the foreign policy decision-making process. Next, I will discuss how Indonesian
strategic culture leads to successive Indonesian presidents’ focusing on how
China could benefit Indonesia’s economy, limiting the number of policies that
Indonesia could pursue in response to China’s policies in the South China Sea.
After that, I will discuss the South China Sea policies adopted during the presi-
dencies of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004–2014) and Jokowi.

The Nature of Political Threat, Underbalancing, and Strategic Culture

What makes a threat a threat? Structural realists such as Stephen Walt (1987)
argue that the level of threat is influenced by aggregate power, geographic prox-
imity, offensive power, and aggressive intentions. At the same time, however, it
does not really explain why a state may actually join or at least work with the
most threatening state.
This brings the problem of interest to the fore. As Schweller (1998, p. 22) notes,
even though states are concerned about their security, most states “must ulti-
mately serve someone” and thus the most important determinant of a state’s be-
havior is the compatibility of their political goals vis-à-vis other stronger powers.
He explains that it is very possible that a state’s own political goal may actually
be better served by the revisionist state, namely, the threatening state instead of
the status-quo power. Therefore, the relationship between the threatening and
the threatened state is far more complex than meets the eye: the threatened state
may not find the threatening state all that threatening in the short term, and may
be willing to cooperate with the threatening state, at least in the short term, to
fulfill its long-term goals.
That, however, brings up another question: What determines a state’s politi-
cal goal? In a sense, what causes a state to believe that a close relationship with
610      Asian Politics & Policy—Volume 11, Issue 4—2019

one power or a threatening power is better than joining the status-quo states to
confront the threatening state? Steven R. David (1991) argues that the dominant
threat faced by many leaders in the Third World countries is actually from the in-
side, the domestic politics; thus, they pick their alignment based on the benefits
to their internal position and focus their energies more on their most dangerous
domestic opponents at the expense of the long-term security of the state and the
general welfare of its population. And as Mastro (2018) further notes, states may
commit underbalancing, choosing to pick options that may actually increase
their exposure to greater threats, if it may preserve the legitimacy of the regime
in the view of the population.
Therefore, it may be possible that a state considers the domestic political
cost of balancing the threat too high, and that the population is unwilling to
sacrifice the potential economic growth and short-term economic benefits to
allocate much resources to finance the long-term security policies (Christensen,
1996). Thus, rather than balancing against threat, they decide to actually work
with it, for short-term political or economic gains or to maintain the regime’s
On the flip side, some leaders actually believe that they would gain politi-
cally by mobilizing the country to face what they perceive as foreign threats
(Mansfield & Snyder, 1995). In some cases, they could actually pick policies that
would damage the economy in order to deal with what they perceive as a foreign
threat. One example is Sukarno’s policy of confrontation against Malaysia that
pitted Indonesia against Malaysia and its allies—United Kingdom, Australia,
and New Zealand—that ruined the Indonesian economy. The goal however was
less centered on the need to confront the threat than the need to maintain the
political statusquo in Indonesia (Kahin, 2003; Sulaiman, 2008).
The alignment pattern of a state is thus determined more by which power can
and will be able to further strengthen the leaders’ domestic political positions.
Leaders may decide on the basis of their political considerations to collaborate
with the threatening power; thus committing underbalancing, even at the risk
of undermining the long-term security of their states or even the stability of the
region. What matters to them is whether they can maintain their position by
appeasing those who really matter in politics, notably the selectorate, “the set of
people with a say in choosing leaders,” and within that selectorate, the winning
coalition (Mesquita, Smith, Siverson, & Morrow, 2003, pp. xi, 7–8).
Leaders will try to work with and to appease those whom they consider im-
portant for maintaining their winning coalition; hence the need to maintain their
political legitimacy limits the leaders’ policy choices. As Schweller (2006) ob-
serves, much of the leeway that the leaders have in the face of the constraints is
based on the cohesiveness of the political elite (such as their agreement about
the nature and extent of the threat, and the political risks), elite cohesion, social
cohesion, and government vulnerabilities.
While Schweller argues that balancing behavior requires a consensus among
elite that the state faces a serious threat (Schweller, 2006, p. 49); in Indonesia’s
case, the consensus among the elite is to actually underbalance, and that is due
to Indonesia’s strategic culture that prioritizes internal threats. Here, strategic
culture is defined as:
Leadership, Strategic Culture, and Indonesian Foreign Policy      611

inherited conceptions and shared beliefs that shape a nation’s collec-

tive identity, the values that color how a country evaluates its interests,
and the norms that influence a state’s understanding of the means by
which it can best realize its destiny in a competitive international system.
(Johnson, 2006, p. 5)

In essence, strategic culture is a culmination of strategic choices that an institu-

tion adopts in order to deal with a threat, becoming ingrained, and thus becom-
ing the standard operating procedure. And each group of political elite has its
own strategic culture (Johnston, 1995, pp. 36, 57–58).
The choice of what kind of strategic culture a state may follow is determined
by the dominant political actors in security and foreign policy. And the most
dominant strategic culture in Indonesia is the military strategic culture, because
of the military’s dominance after the emergence of Suharto authoritarian gov-
ernment in the 1960s that lasted even after the collapse of Suharto’s regime in
1998. More importantly, there is simply no significant alternative to the military’s
viewpoint of what constitutes threat, creating a dominant identity of what con-
stitutes a threat is (Haas, 2014, p. 719).

Indonesian Military’s Strategic Culture, Economy, and Leadership

The Indonesian military’s strategic culture is heavily influenced by its expe-
rience during the Independence War (1945–1949). Thanks to what it believes as
its resilience in conducting guerilla warfare––the beleaguered young Republic of
Indonesia managed to snatch its independence from the Dutch. With the notion
of “strength of spirit over the strength of material” instilled in Indonesian sol-
diers, they could defeat any attempt to snatch Indonesia’s liberty as long as they
have the “courage to struggle” (Anderson, 1972, p. 239).
This idea of resilience, in combination with successful guerilla warfare, be-
came the foundation of the Indonesian military doctrine of defense in depth: any
invasion would be faced by the combined might of the Indonesian army and a
resilient population, working together to launch a guerilla warfare that depletes
the enemy’s will to fight, and in the end, to expel the enemy. Under this doctrine,
the Indonesian army becomes inward-looking, focusing on maintaining the pop-
ulation’s will to fight and eliminating anything that they believe will sap the
ability of the population to resist the invaders (Sulaiman, 2016).
Later, concerned with what they consider as weak civilian governments in
the 1950s and the growing threat from the Indonesian Communist Party, the
Indonesian army further formulated the concept of dwifungsi (dual functions).
They needed a positive sociopolitical role to maintain national resilience by com-
bining ideology, politics, economy, society, culture, and military strength to face
aggression from the outside (Sebastian & Lanti, 2010, p. 149). The growing threat
from Communism was especially seen as vital because the Communists were
seen as having stabbed the Indonesian army twice in the back. The first one took
place in 1948, in the middle of the Indonesian Independence War 1945–1949,
when the besieged army had to deal with both the impending Dutch invasion
and the rebellious Communists at the back.
The second “rebellion” took place later in the 1965, during the authoritarian rule
of President Sukarno, when pro-Sukarno officers, supported by the Indonesian
612      Asian Politics & Policy—Volume 11, Issue 4—2019

Communist Party, launched a preemptive counter-coup to prevent what they

believed to be a council of generals banding together to undermine Sukarno’s
regime. The murder of six of the army’s top generals was seen by the army as the
ultimate betrayal, leading them to massacre or imprison the Communists and its
sympathizers, to ban the Communist party, and to remain vigilant against the
return of the Communists that would again stab them in the back.
Thus, the New Order, the Indonesian authoritarian government that emerged
in 1967 to replace the Sukarno government, focused on developing the Indonesian
economy. Indonesian decision makers believe that economic development is a
part of national strategy to deal with the threat of communism because of the
belief that “communists always grow stronger whenever the economy is weak”
(Ning, 1995, p. 184). As a result, when Indonesia agreed with Malaysia, the
Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand to form ASEAN as a vessel for regional
economic and cultural cooperation, it considered ASEAN to be a part of regional
security arrangements, a bulwark against external threats and subversion from
the Communists (Anwar, 1994, p. 130).
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and even the
collapse of the New Order regime, many Indonesian defense planners still fret
over the latent threat of communism. For instance, when Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo
was the head of Indonesian army, he declared that “the Indonesian Communist
Party is dangerous, but neocapitalism and neoliberalism are more danger-
ous” because they could turn religious people into atheists, who will then em-
brace Communism and become fifth columnists (Alief, 2016, par. 2). And the
Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu also warned about the latent danger of
Communism and the possible revival and rise of the Indonesian Communist
Party (PKI) (Hidayat, 2016).
Besides security, the government has two other major motives for maintain-
ing high economic growth. First is Indonesia’s belief that it has to be a rich and
prosperous country to be truly independent (Weinstein, 1976). In other words,
as long as Indonesia remains poor and highly dependent on foreign loans, then
Indonesia is not yet truly free. And that brings us to the second motive. Even
after the fall of the New Order, successive Indonesian governments remain fix-
ated on economic growth. As Liddle (1985) has argued in his analysis on the
New Order government, strong economic development bestowed performance
legitimacy, the legitimacy that they gained for getting things done.
This belief leads to three main implications. First, and most importantly, even
after the collapse of the New Order, successive Indonesian governments put
more emphasis on economic development, which provides both performance
legitimacy and security. While the New Order used performance legitimacy as
a way to justify its authoritarian rule, in the post–reformation era, it remains the
most critical issue not only for the ballot box, but also for the ingrained belief,
based on the fact that the New Order regime collapsed after being hit by the
Asian financial crisis (1997–1998), that the president could be removed from the
office had the economy gone south (Adityowati, 2015). As a result, Indonesian
leaders could not simply ramp up the military spending at the expense of eco-
nomic growth.
Second, the Indonesian army remains fixated on internal threats, which they
believe would sap the people’s morale and will to fight, and in turn, undermine
Leadership, Strategic Culture, and Indonesian Foreign Policy      613

the entire defense in depth doctrine. Thus, the army, could live with an anemic
annual military budget, ranging from 1.3% of the GDP in 1988 during the height
of the New Order before it declined to 1.1% of the GDP between 1991 and 1997,
to only 0.9% of the GDP in 2009, as long as they believe that they could maintain
the resilience of Indonesians (Emmerson, 2012). Even by 2015, Indonesia only
spent 0.9% of its GDP on military expenditure (“SIPRI military expenditure,”
n.d.). And to make the situation worse, the budget was not enough to cover the
army’s needs. As Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, a former deputy defense minister under
president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, noted in 2014, the Indonesian army’s
budget could only fund 40% of what was needed to develop a minimum essen-
tial force (Moestafa & Chen, 2014), which is the minimum possible force needed
to guard Indonesia’s integrity, let alone project its power beyond its border.
The third implication, and the most important one, is that Indonesia is simply
not prepared to effectively deal with possible threats from abroad, especially
in its EEZ. Its adherence to the defense in depth doctrine, with its focus on the
army, combined with a low military budget, leaves it ill prepared to deal with
threats, such as disputes in Indonesia’s EEZ over China’s nine-dash line.
These culminate in the fourth implication, that Indonesia’s security goal is
actually the creation of regional peace that is free from the interference from
outside powers. This was evident during a discussion at the ASEAN Summit in
1971 when the creation of Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality was proposed
by Malaysia. Although the Indonesian leaders did not disagree with the concept,
they rejected outright the idea that neutrality would be guaranteed by the three
major powers of the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. Instead, they
stressed that “the only way to guarantee security in Southeast Asia was for each
nation to strengthen itself internally” through improving the economic condi-
tion of the country (Weinstein, 1976, p. 187). And to safeguard its self-reliance,
Indonesia rejected military alliances.
This, however, does not mean that Indonesian leaders are completely con-
strained in how they deal with the problems in the South China Sea. They still
have several assets that they could use, notably Indonesia’s very strong geo-
strategic positions: its location over one of the world’s most important trade
routes; its being one of the largest countries in ASEAN in term of size, popu-
lation, and economy, making it one of the most important players in ASEAN;
abundant raw resources; and growing middle-class population. In addition, the
fact that Indonesia’s claim is located on the southern end of the nine-dash line
allows Indonesia some leeway to deal with this issue. Unlike the Philippines or
Vietnam, it does not face the direct threat of China’s aggressive military posture.
These allow Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, two of
the presidents that are discussed in this article, to have some leeway in dealing
with growing tensions in the South China Sea. Even though both faced similar
constraints imposed by Indonesia’s own strategic culture, their different leader-
ship styles and domestic political conditions made them pick different strategies
to deal with the South China Sea problem. Yudhoyono’s focus was on boosting
Indonesia’s international presence, thus he attempted to solve the South China
Sea dispute first by turning it into a regional issue concerning ASEAN and sec-
ond, by nudging China to agree to the Code of Conduct. Jokowi, on the contrary,
614      Asian Politics & Policy—Volume 11, Issue 4—2019

has focused on strengthening Indonesia’s claim unilaterally with a strong re-

sponse, such as his infamous policy of blowing up illegal fishing boats.

Indonesia’s Policy under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono: A

Thousand Friends, Zero Enemy (2010–2014)
The era of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono started under favorable
global economic conditions, where the global economy was growing strongly,
leading to record commodity prices that helped Indonesia’s economic growth.
Even though the global financial crisis of 2008–2009 took some of the wind out of
the sails, China’s strong economic growth due to massive fiscal stimulus created
strong demands for Indonesia’s resources, thus dampening the effect from the
economic crisis (Hill, 2015, p. 286). This strong economic growth forced Indonesia
to rely more and more on China and it could not afford to alienate China. At
the same time, Indonesia’s strong economic performance allowed President
Yudhoyono to pursue his pet project of raising Indonesia to become more visi-
ble on the global stage (Fitriani, 2015, p. 77), and in pursuing Yudhoyono’s own
brand of bebas aktif.
Bebas aktif (free and active foreign policy) is the main principle of Indonesian
foreign policy; in other words, Indonesia’s foreign policy should be both active
and free from foreign entanglements, especially alliances, in order to maximize
Indonesia’s independence (Anwar, 1994). Regionally, that meant Indonesia should
also strive to create a region free from major powers’ intervention (Ba, 2009).
The concept of bebas aktif, however, is quite vague, especially in its implemen-
tation. Under president Yudhoyono, Indonesia implemented the concept by is-
suing the “thousand friends, zero enemy” policy, which stressed being friendly
with everyone and improving relations with every nation through bilateral ties
and multilateral institutions (Puspitasari, 2010, p. 2). This policy was elaborated
under the concept of dynamic equilibrium by former Indonesian foreign minis-
ter Marty M. Natalegawa:

Dynamic equilibrium combines two qualities. First, of constant change.

Change and evolution in the regional setting, derived among others from
regional countries’ continued development, is inherent and inevitable. It
does not and should not be seen as a problem, per se. Second, condition
of stability. Change, viewed as a natural and inevitable process, does not
have to equate with instability. Thus, such conditions posit an absence of
a preponderant power and are not derived from a destabilizing policy
of balance of power and containment, but rather by rendering irrelevant
and redundant competitive dynamics. Instead, the notion of common
security, common stability and common prosperity are propagated; of
mutual interest in the region’s peace and stability: a virtuous circle of
confidence-building steps. Further, the interlinkages between issues are
better recognized. Political and security issues are very much linked to
economic and social issues. In such multifaceted settings, where issues
are interlinked, desired results are best achieved through partnership
rather than competition; through the building of bridges rather than by
accentuating differences. (2011, pp. 43–44)

The concept, in essence, stressed that any change in the international system,
notably due to the rise of China, should not be seen as inevitably leading to
Leadership, Strategic Culture, and Indonesian Foreign Policy      615

instability. Rather, it should be managed by integrating rising China into an in-

ternational community by economic and social means.
Yudhoyono aspired to have Indonesia play a much bigger role in international
organizations, such as ASEAN, and thus he emphasized the centrality of ASEAN
in the region, especially in finding the solution for regional disputes. Indonesia
pursued several multilateral approaches that involved ASEAN to deal with the
disputes concerning the nine-dash line. Indonesia aimed to further integrate
China into the ASEAN regional community by coaxing China to agree to the
Code of Conduct as a part of the confidence-building process (Valencia, 2013).
The idea was that the code of conduct could provide the rules of engagement
between China and ASEAN, forcing China to adhere to the rules and norms
of ASEAN. By further integrating China into the ASEAN community, conflicts
would be minimized.
Moreover, despite significant domestic opposition and the belief that Indonesia
was simply not ready for ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA)
(“Public thinks ASEAN,” 2010), the Yudhoyono administration did nothing to
block it, seeing it both as a way to benefit Indonesia through China’s invest-
ment (“The Strategist Six,” 2016), and also to engage China as a strategic partner
(Jiang, 2012). This is also why Indonesia was pursuing what Rizal Sukma (2012)
called a “hedging strategy,” a strategy for “moderating the potentially negative
implications of the rise of China” by utilizing U.S. presence in Southeast Asia
while simultaneously reducing U.S. dominance in the region by engaging China
(p. 45).
At the same time, Yudhoyono’s policies in the South China Sea were not com-
pletely successful. China, for one, has neither been willing to sign the Code of
Conduct nor to actually acquiesce to bringing ASEAN to the dispute. During
the 2012 ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) in Phnom Penh, for in-
stance, despite the Philippines’ insistence on having its dispute with China in
Scarborough Shoal mentioned in the joint communiqué, China’s lobbying in
Cambodia, the host of the meeting, was such that in the end the foreign min-
isters failed to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in ASEAN’s history.
While Natalegawa’s shuttle diplomacy in the end managed to save the day by
having ASEAN issue a face-saving “Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea”
(Nehru, 2012), it was clear that China was unwilling to actually sign a Code of
Conduct simply because it was not in China’s interest to do so, but it had more
to gain by not signing it (Emmerson, 2016).
In the meantime, Indonesia could not do much aside from  asking China to
return to the negotiating table simply because Indonesia neither had the political
will to pressure China––fearing worsening economic ties––nor the military capa-
bility to do so, because of the lack of funding. During the Yudhoyono years, the
Indonesian navy was unable to stop or apprehend military boats and illegal fish-
ing boats from neighboring countries that entered Indonesia’s territorial waters
(Fitriani, 2015). One of the main reasons was simply the lack of fuel. As noted by
Gen. Moeldoko, former commander of the Indonesian National Armed Forces,
in 2014, the Indonesian navy only received 28% to 29% of the fuel it needed
to operate its patrol boats (Munir, 2014). Admiral Marsetio, the naval chief of
staff, also noted that because of the lack of fuel, the navy could only operate a
616      Asian Politics & Policy—Volume 11, Issue 4—2019

maximum of 15 ships or at least 7 ships to guard the huge expanse of Indonesian

waters. And he also lamented the fact that the navy’s pleadings for more funds
fell on deaf ears (Asril, 2014). Considering the meager budget discussed in the
section above, it was not surprising that Indonesia lacked the ability to back its
policies on the South China Sea with force.
The other reason, however, was that Yudhoyono was more interested in main-
taining good bilateral relations with other ASEAN states. Vice Admiral (ret.)
Freddy Numberi, former minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries during the
Yudhoyono era (2004–2009), said that he was reprimanded by Yudhoyono for
burning illegal fishing boats that belonged to other nations (Sonia, 2014). It
looked like Yudhoyono was willing to look the other way to maintain good re-
lationships with other nations––especially China. In the words of Fitriani (2015),
“Yudhoyono preferred not to become involved in conflict if he could avoid it, but
if that was not possible, then he would choose peaceful rather than confronta-
tional means to resolve it” (p. 85).
Therefore, Indonesia’s foreign policy under President Yudhoyono focused on
multilateral approaches involving international institutions in dealing with the
disputes in the South China Sea while playing down any incidents that may in-
flame domestic passions. Yudhoyono focused simultaneously on engaging China
economically and on coaxing China to agree to the Code of Conduct as a confi-
dence-building measure in order to integrate China into the regional community.
President Yudhoyono’s dual approach did not succeed because of China’s own
reluctance to sign the Code of Conduct, and also because of Indonesia’s military
weakness, which made Indonesia unable to give teeth to its policies.

Indonesia’s Policy under Joko Widodo: Global Maritime Nexus

In contrast to Yudhoyono’s focus on multilateral institutions to deal with the
problem in the South China Sea, Jokowi has shown a marked indifference to-
ward foreign policy. While Yudhoyono would attend every single international
forum with gusto, Jokowi seemed to be very reluctant to do so. Right after he
was inaugurated as Indonesia’s president in 2014, for instance, he was actu-
ally considering skipping the G-20 meeting in Brisbane (Saragih, 2014). When
Yudhoyono proclaimed the “thousand friends, zero enemy” slogan of his foreign
policy Jokowi bluntly stated, "What’s the point of having many friends but we
only get the disadvantages? Many friends should bring many benefits" (Wardhy,
2014, par. 3).
In other words, while Yudhoyono saw that international institutions and inte-
grating China into the ASEAN-led international community could be an effec-
tive way to deal with Indonesia’s weaknesses and maintain regional stability,
Jokowi prefers to pursue insular, self-sufficiency policies that boost Indonesia’s
capabilities. Ever since President Jokowi was inaugurated in October 2014, he
has proclaimed the need for Indonesia to start utilizing its maritime assets se-
riously and to strengthen Indonesia’s control over its maritime area. Using the
concept of Poros Maritim Dunia (Global Maritime Fulcrum), President Jokowi de-
clared that he aimed to restore Indonesia to its past maritime glory (“Jokowi to
restore,” 2014).
Leadership, Strategic Culture, and Indonesian Foreign Policy      617

To do that, Jokowi stressed the need for Indonesia to develop its maritime econ-
omy through what he termed as “Maritime toll road” to strengthen the connec-
tivity between Indonesia’s many islands in order to stimulate economic growth
especially in the underdeveloped eastern part of Indonesia (Fardah, 2016).
Jokowi also appointed Susi Pudjiastuti as his minister of marine affairs and
fisheries. Although her appointment in the beginning raised some eyebrows
among religious conservatives and opponents of Jokowi’s administration be-
cause of her lack of formal education, tattoo, and smoking habit (Siregar, 2014),
she has since blown her critics out of the water by coming down hard on illegal
fishing, seizing, and then sinking boats engaged in illegal poaching as a “shock
therapy.” Her tough approach led to a dramatic drop in foreign boats operating
around Indonesian waters (Thayer, 2014) while making her the most popular
minister in Jokowi’s cabinet. According to two public opinion polls, her popular-
ity was overwhelming (Adzkia, 2015; Permadi, 2015).
Yet in dealing with China, Jokowi has very little room for maneuver. With a
strong focus on economic growth and with the global commodity boom coming
to an end, Jokowi is desperate for economic investment––especially from China.
Not surprisingly, by May 2017, he already met with Chinese president Xi Jinping
six times, five meetings of which happened in Beijing (Parlina, 2016; Purwanto,
2017). In contrast, Yudhoyono only visited China twice in seven years (Cheng &
Li, 2012).
This led to accusations, especially from the opposition and conspiracy theo-
rists, that either Jokowi had been selling out Indonesia to China (“Rumors there
are,” 2016), or that he was secretly a Communist. He was constantly dogged by
such accusations during the election of 2014 and this issue is kept alive by his po-
litical rivals—including Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, his opportunistic and politically
ambitious former chief of the military (Friana, 2017). As a result, Jokowi was
forced to show that he was taking a strong stance in defending Indonesia’s claim
in the South China Sea. He did so by a show of force: he staged a limited Cabinet
meeting on board a warship in the waters around Natuna Islands as mentioned
at the beginning of this article (Kapoor & Jensen, 2016). And one year after the
Cabinet meeting on the battleship, despite China’s strong protest, Indonesia re-
named the northernmost waters of its EEZ the North Natuna Sea “to make it
sound more Indonesian” (Cochrane, 2017).
Even as the Jokowi administration tried to show that it was taking a strong
stance vis-à-vis China’s claim of part of Indonesia’s EEZ, he had to face the re-
ality that deteriorating infrastructure, neglected during the Yudhoyono admin-
istration, forced Indonesia to actually spend up to 27% of the GDP on logistics
costs (“State of logistics,” 2013). Besides, the slowdown in global economy that
depressed global commodity prices in turn hurt Indonesia’s economy. Next, the
high poverty rate, not to mention the onerous bureaucracy, took its toll on eco-
nomic growth (“OECD economic surveys,” 2016). The deteriorating economy
and the lack of economic growth was also a major concern for Jokowi, as sur-
veys from the respected Lingkaran Survei Indonesia (Indonesian Survey Circle)
conducted during the period January 7–14, 2018 indicated that 52.6% of its re-
spondents complained about the rising price of staple goods (Irawan, 2018).
618      Asian Politics & Policy—Volume 11, Issue 4—2019

However, at the end of the day, identity politics was far more influential for the
2019 Presidential Election (Sulaiman, 2019).
With so many domestic issues to tackle, aggressive foreign policy, let alone
challenging China, was not an option, as Chinese investment was desperately
needed to revive Indonesia’s sluggish economy. Not surprisingly, the Jokowi
administration tried very hard to assure China that it did not have any conflict
with it. For instance, a few months after renaming waters around Natuna Island
into North Natuna Sea, Indonesia in the end quietly backtracked on renaming
the sea. On September 13, 2017, coordinating minister for maritime affairs Luhut
Binsar Panjaitan admitted that while there had been some proposals rename the
seas, he had never given the official decision to rename the area (Aziza, 2017).
Indonesia also tried to prevent the dispute in the South China Sea from becom-
ing a source of tension with Beijing by downplaying the encroachment as an
illegal fishing problem and by calling for “concrete cooperation” between states
involved in the South China Sea dispute, while sidestepping the issue of China’s
island-building projects (Ibrahim, 2017).
This focus on domestic issues in turn led to one analyst  calling  Indonesia’s
current approach regarding the South China Sea as “dependent and passive in
its commitment to an ASEAN solidarity” (Weatherbee, 2016, p. 10). Moreover,
Indonesia’s policy of blowing up ships has the potential of upsetting its neigh-
bors, whose support and solidarity is needed for Indonesia’s foreign policy
goals. As noted by Marty Natalegawa, "Some of the risk in our region nowadays
is precisely the risk of misperception, miscalculation, minor incidents becoming
bigger crises.” He added, “The region as a whole should not lose the habit of
open dialogue and diplomatic communication” (Salna, 2016, par. 3).
In summary, while Jokowi took a much stronger stance against China due
to the disputes around Natuna Islands, it was more due to domestic political
calculation in trying to quell the domestic critics, than Indonesia’s attempting to
finally take a stand against China. Indonesia’s strategic culture that emphasized
economic growth in order to maintain domestic political stability, in essence, is
also important in shaping Jokowi’s choice.

Indonesia’s South China Sea policy from 2010 to 2018 is marked by the same
policy of underbalancing against China due to Indonesia’s strategic culture. To
paraphrase Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, each president pursues the same policy in
their own ways. And the reason for the similarity is Indonesia’s own strategic
culture that puts much emphasis on tackling internal threats and focusing on
strong economic growth vis-à-vis strongly balancing against threat. As a result,
there are limited options that both presidents can take, but each president takes
different options depending on their personality.
President Yudhoyono emphasized international cooperation and the interna-
tional community as a way of managing the rising tension in the South China Sea.
In Yudhoyono’s case, his aversion to direct conflict, his desire to receive interna-
tional accolades, and his unwillingness to challenge China due to Indonesia’s
reliance on China as the market for its commodities, made it difficult for him to
press for forceful policies to defend Indonesia’s interests––or balancing China.
Leadership, Strategic Culture, and Indonesian Foreign Policy      619

There was also a psychological factor. The need to consider a broad range of
opinions made it impossible for him to be decisive, and in cases where he ac-
tually had to make a difficult decision, he admitted that it often made him feel
lonely (Fitriani, 2015).
Similar to President Yudhoyono, President Jokowi’s main concern was also
the  Indonesian economy, especially infrastructure building which requires a
lot of capital. Thus,  he is taking an accommodative stance toward China. The
only exception to this was the case  when China  was perceived as challenging
Indonesia’s territorial integrity and  riling the domestic audience, thus forcing
him to show his resolve in dealing with China’s incursions by staging a meeting
on a battleship in the disputed territory. Jokowi chose that due to his disinterest
in getting involved in international affairs.
Therefore, Indonesia’s policy of underbalancing can be explained by
Indonesia’s strategic culture that puts emphasis on economic growth in order to
maintain domestic political stability, and constrains successive Indonesian pres-
idents from pursuing a more aggressive policy in dealing with the China threat
in the South China Sea.

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