CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE
APLN member Elina Noor co-wrote an article with Christopher S. Chivvis and Beatrix Geaghan-Breiner. They discussed how Indonesia adopts a regional approach to world order and sees ASEAN as the primary forum to manage security issues. The original article can be found on the Carnegie website here.
When the G20 summit opened in Bali in November 2022, rancor over Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine was high. According to the host, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, this was the “most difficult” G20 summit ever. “We should not divide the world into parts,” Widodo said. “We must not allow the world to fall into another cold war.”1 These comments captured Indonesia’s attitude toward both the war in Ukraine and the rivalry between the United States and China. As an emerging power keen on maintaining regional stability, Indonesia is deeply concerned about the drift toward antagonistic blocs. Indonesia’s diplomats often cite its founding prime minister, Mohammed Hatta, who said in 1948 that Indonesia is “rowing between two reefs,” charting a middle path between great powers.2 Indonesia takes a regional approach to world order and sees ASEAN as the primary forum to manage security issues. On Ukraine, this approach has led it to a policy of strict neutrality.
INDONESIA’S APPROACH TO UKRAINE
Just two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, Widodo, better known as Jokowi, proclaimed that both “Ukraine and Russia are friends of Indonesia”—a position that would have been unimaginable in any Western capital.3 Indonesia has since sought neutrality and not joined the sanctions regime, arguing that sanctions would escalate tensions and harm civilians worldwide.4 Jakarta also declined to send weapons to Ukraine, noting that its constitution prohibits providing military aid to other countries. (Indonesia also lacks equipment that would be useful to Ukraine in the first place.5) Like many emerging powers, Indonesia supported some early UN resolutions that condemned the invasion and demanded that Russia withdraw from Ukraine but abstained on a resolution to suspend Russia’s membership on the Human Rights Council.6
Like South Africa, Brazil, and Türkiye, Indonesia has sought to negotiate an end to the war. In June 2022, Jokowi traveled to Russia and Ukraine and attempted to engineer a détente between the warring parties. He succeeded in securing guarantees from Russian President Vladimir Putin on the safe delivery of food and fertilizer from the war zone. Jokowi says he wants Indonesia to be a “bridge of peace” between Ukraine and Russia.7 Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto has proposed a peace plan to this end, albeit only in his personal capacity, not on behalf of the Indonesian government.8 Many Western officials criticized Prabowo’s plan, however, because it did not require a full Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory.9
Indonesia is eager for an end to the fighting in Ukraine, in large part due to its negative economic effects. The war hit the Indonesian economy hard, causing inflation and supply chain disruptions, especially in the food sector. Indonesia is dependent on Ukraine for wheat and Russia for fertilizer.10 Noodles are a staple in Indonesians’ diet, and “Indomie” instant noodles are an especially popular and affordable meal. When the war interrupted Indonesia’s access to wheat, there were shortages of Indomie in supermarkets and prices soared.11 Some Indonesians accordingly called their president’s trip to Russia and Ukraine an “Indomie mission,” revealing how heavily food security is driving Jokowi’s peace initiative.12
The war has also hampered Indonesia’s imports of Russian military equipment and technology, which Jakarta uses for some of its more important military systems, including its Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 fighter jets.13 Indonesia has scaled down its imports of Russian arms over the past five years, likely in response to the West’s sanctions and export controls on Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea.14 In 2021, under the threat of CAATSA sanctions, Jakarta dropped a plan to procure Su-35 aircraft from Russia, instead turning to France for Rafale jets.15 Indonesia now imports more military equipment from other partners such as the United States, South Korea, and France than it does from Russia.16 But the war has obstructed the supply of some parts that Indonesia still needs from Moscow, and this is another factor driving Jakarta’s peace initiative.
Beyond food security and Russian military equipment, Jakarta’s approach to the war is complicated by its emerging role on the global stage. With one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and its fourth-largest population, Indonesia is a big player in Southeast Asia. It also aspires to a greater role on the world stage and has sought to leverage its recent chairmanship of the G20 and ASEAN to this end. Given Russia’s membership in the G20 and the skepticism of many members of ASEAN about the war in Ukraine, these leadership positions have encouraged, if not required, Jakarta to take a more neutral approach.17
A deep desire for nonalignment also permeates foreign policy thinking in Jakarta. Indonesians remember the mass killings of 1965 to 1966, when Washington supported the Suharto regime’s anti-communist purge which killed up to a million Indonesian civilians, most of whom were innocent.18 This Cold War history makes Indonesia wary of aligning with any power and sensitive about violations of its national sovereignty. The principle that Indonesia “does not side with world powers” is strong.19 Jokowi has also quipped that Indonesia does not intend to engage in “megaphone diplomacy” about the war in Ukraine—an implicit criticism of the West’s approach.20
JAKARTA’S APPROACH TO U.S.-CHINA COMPETITION
Indonesia has felt the economic effects of the war in Ukraine, but the fighting is still almost 10,000 kilometers away. In contrast, China is a neighbor and a major power. Both it and the United States are important economic partners for Indonesia, and so it is unsurprising that Jokowi has emphasized that he is “very worried” about mounting U.S.-China tensions. He fears that “if not managed, it can lead to open conflict or even war.”21
Indonesia’s economic ties with China—its largest trading partner and second-largest source of foreign investment—dissuade Jakarta from siding exclusively with the United States. Since 2014, Jokowi has led Indonesia through a period of rapid economic growth. His development strategy hinges on a significant build-out of infrastructure, much of which involves state-owned enterprises taking funds from Chinese companies to build new highways, airports, power plants, and a high-speed rail line linking Bandung to Jakarta.22 These investments make it difficult for Indonesian officials to publicly criticize China.23
Indonesia has the world’s largest population of Muslims, but still did not speak out against China’s persecution of its Uyghurs. Instead, Indonesia voted down a UN motion to investigate China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, prompting accusations that Jakarta was beholden to Beijing’s investments.24 China’s growing economic influence is also entangled with Indonesia’s domestic politics, in part because Belt and Road Initiative projects bring large numbers of Chinese workers into the country, sometimes contributing to ethnic tensions.25
Indonesia does have security concerns about Beijing, but it prefers to deal with these quietly, without the involvement of outside powers. Indonesia is especially concerned about Chinese fishing boats encroaching on its exclusive economic zone near the Natuna Islands.26 For Jakarta, sovereignty over these waters is non-negotiable, and it has sought to respond to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing from any country.27 Between 2014 and 2019, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, under the leadership of Susi Pudjiastuti, blew up and sunk more than 500 ships for illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. Many of these vessels were from Vietnam and China.28
Since then, Indonesia has opted for a more discreet approach to China’s transgressions. Though some observers argue that Indonesia’s diplomacy is not bullish enough, others point out that Jakarta benefits from putting away the megaphone and defending its territory and legal rights—a tactical approach for a strategic goal.29 Indonesia wants to protect itself but still avoid becoming entangled in strategic competition with China.30
Indonesia’s ambitions for economic development lead it to seek good relations with both China and the United States and force Jakarta into a difficult balancing act. With the world’s largest reserves of nickel, Indonesia wants to make itself a top producer of electric vehicle batteries. To this end, Jakarta is pushing for a limited free trade agreement with the United States that would allow Indonesian businesses operating in the EV supply chain to get preferential duty treatment in the United States and benefit from the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)’s EV production subsidies.31 But U.S. concerns about China’s investment in the Indonesian nickel industry are holding up progress on the deal.
While it pursues its policy of balance, Jakarta is looking to modernize its military. To do so, it is turning to Washington for training and equipment. The United States is already Indonesia’s largest security partner; each year, the two countries hold more than 220 defense activities, ranging from smaller expert exchanges to large-scale multilateral military exercises, such as Super Garuda Shield, an annual exercise involving nineteen nations.32 Washington and Jakarta intend to up their defense cooperation further by deepening interoperability and replacing Indonesia’s Russian jets with U.S. aircraft.33
In 2023, Indonesia dedicated the largest share of its budget to defense ever, but China’s aggression is not the main driver of its military modernization.34 Many Southeast Asian countries—including Indonesia—have been on military modernization campaigns for decades in an effort to strengthen their self-defense, not simply to balance China.35
Some U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific, such as Japan, the Philippines, and Australia, might be more valuable to Washington’s regional military interests, but Indonesia’s geography holds much strategic importance. If the United States wanted to project power north from Australia into the South China Sea or Taiwan Straits, it would need to pass through Indonesian waters. Washington would also need Indonesia’s help to close off China’s access to the Strait of Malacca—a move that some defense planners foresee in a Taiwan blockade contingency.36
Despite its apprehension about China, Indonesia is concerned that U.S. efforts to build a regional anti-China coalition could be counterproductive to its interest in peace with Beijing. Indonesia has been particularly critical of the U.S. and UK plan to arm Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, which would also likely pass through Indonesian waters, and thus undermine its policy of maintaining a nuclear-free zone.37 Likewise, Jakarta sees the agreement and the elevation of the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) as a threat to ASEAN’s central role in Asia’s institutional architecture—an architecture that Jakarta considers key to preventing the hegemony of any one power in the Indo-Pacific.
Indonesia may seek to leverage Washington’s rivalry with Beijing to obtain material support from the United States for military modernization. Defense Minister Prabowo met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in August 2023 and agreed to an unprecedented joint statement that the PRC’s “expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea are inconsistent with international law.”38 This was a shift from Indonesia’s typically neutral stance on China.39 Soon thereafter it was announced that Jakarta would receive F-15s and Black Hawk helicopters from Washington—an indication that Indonesia may be able to reap gains with rhetoric aimed at China, even if it continues to preserve relations with Beijing and maintains a neutral stance on great-power competition.
Indonesia will thus not choose sides in the U.S.-China competition and rejects the imposition of a binary choice altogether. As Indonesia joins the ranks of Asia’s rising powers, it will prioritize strategic independence. In the process, Jakarta will continue to tread carefully with China and find creative ways to benefit in a new era of climate transition and strategic competition.
1 Yerica Lai, “Jokowi Opens G20 Summit With a Call for Wisdom, End of War,” Jakarta Post, November 15, 2022, https://www.thejakartapost.com/indonesia/2022/11/15/jokowi-opens-g20-summit-with-a-call-for-wisdom-end-of-war.html
2 Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar, “The Rise of the Asian Middle Powers: Indonesia’s Conceptions of International Order,” International Affairs, Vol. 99, no. 4 (July 2023), https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiad167
3 Shotaro Tani and Koya Jibiki, “Indonesia’s Jokowi Calls for Cease-fire in Russia-Ukraine War,” Nikkei Asia, March 9, 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Editor-s-Picks/Interview/Indonesia-s-Jokowi-calls-for-cease-fire-in-Russia-Ukraine-war
4 Shotaro Tani and Koya Jibiki, “Indonesia’s Jokowi Calls for Cease-fire in Russia-Ukraine War,” Nikkei Asia, March 9, 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Editor-s-Picks/Interview/Indonesia-s-Jokowi-calls-for-cease-fire-in-Russia-Ukraine-war
5 International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, “Asia,” https://doi.org/10.1080/04597222.2023.2162718.
6 “Indonesia Votes Abstain in Voting on UN Resolution on Russia’s Suspension, Voice of Indonesia, April 8, 2022, https://voi.id/en/news/155173; Ivana Saric and Zachary Basu, “141 Countries Vote to Condemn Russia at UN,” Axios, March 2, 2022, https://www.axios.com/2022/03/02/united-nations-ukraine-russia-141; Yvette Tanamal, “Indonesia Draws Line on Russian Annexation,” Jakarta Post, October 14, 2022, https://www.thejakartapost.com/world/2022/10/14/indonesia-draws-line-on-russian-annexation.html
7 “Indonesia Can Be a Russia-Ukraine ‘Bridge of Peace’ as It Reaches ‘Pinnacle of Global Leadership,’ Joko Widodo Says,” South China Morning Post, August 16, 2022, https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/3189056/indonesia-can-be-russia-ukraine-bridge-peace-it-reaches
8 “Jokowi Will Seek Clarification From Prabowo for Ukraine Speech,” Jakarta Post, June 6, 2023, https://www.thejakartapost.com/indonesia/2023/06/06/jokowi-will-seek-clarification-from-prabowo-for-ukraine-speech.html
9 Mercedes Ruehl and Kathrin Hille, “Indonesia Floats Ukraine Peace Plan, Triggering Sharp Western Criticism,” Financial Times, June 3, 2023, https://www.ft.com/content/bf2c9186-344a-4f3a-a66a-c61244199d82
10 Dominic Faulder, “Asia’s Food Crisis: Ukraine War Triggers Chain Reaction of Shortages,” Nikkei Asia, May 18, 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/The-Big-Story/Asia-s-food-crisis-Ukraine-war-triggers-chain-reaction-of-shortages
11 Aisyah Llewellyn, “Far From Ukraine, Indonesia’s Favorite Noodles Run Out of Stock,” Al Jazeera, March 21, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/21/as-ukraine-war-sends-wheat-pas-indonesians-asking-wheres-indomie ; Koya Jibiki, “In Indonesia, All Eyes on Indomie Noodles as Inflation Benchmark,” Nikkei Asia, June 16, 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Food-Beverage/In-Indonesia-all-eyes-on-Indomie-noodles-as-inflation-benchmark
12 Erwida Maulia, “Indomie Diplomacy: How Inflation Drove Jokowi to Kyiv and Moscow,” Nikkei Asia, July 5, 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Ukraine-war/Indomie-diplomacy-How-inflation-drove-Jokowi-to-Kyiv-and-Moscow
13 “Indonesia to Buy Boeing’s F-15 Jets, Lockheed’s Black Hawk Helicopters,” Defense News, August 23, 2023, https://www.defensenews.com/air/2023/08/23/indonesia-to-buy-boeings-f-15-jets-lockheeds-black-hawk-helicopters/
14 SIPRI Arms Transfer Database, https://armstrade.sipri.org/armstrade/page/values.php ; Sebastian Strangio, “Are Russian Arms Exports to Southeast Asia a Thing of the Past?” The Diplomat, May 9, 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/05/are-russian-arms-exports-to-southeast-asia-a-thing-of-the-past/
15 “Indonesia Confirms Buying Used Fighter Jets for 800 Million After Deal Criticized,” Reuters, June 15, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/indonesia-confirms-buying-used-fighter-jets-800-million-after-deal-criticised-2023-06-14/ ; A.B. Abrams, “Indonesia’s $22 Billion Purchases of US, French Fighter Jets: How Russia’s Su-35 Lost Out,” The Diplomat, February 12, 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/02/indonesias-22-billion-purchases-of-us-french-fighter-jets-how-russias-su-35-lost-out/
16 SIPRI Arms Transfer Database, https://armstrade.sipri.org/armstrade/page/values.php
17 “Indonesia at ‘Pinnacle of Global Leadership,’ President Says,” Reuters, August 16, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/indonesia-pinnacle-global-leadership-president-says-2022-08-16/ ; Sui-Lee Wee, “Once Inward-Looking, Joko Widodo Casts Himself as a Global Statesman,” New York Times, November 13, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/13/world/asia/indonesia-joko-widodo-g20.html
18 Vincent Bevins, The Jakarta Method, New York: Public Affairs, 2020.
19 Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, “Indonesia’s Foreign Policy,” https://www.kemlu.go.id/washington/en/pages/kebijakan_luar_negeri_ri/716/etc-menu
20 Heru Andriyanto, “No Megaphone Diplomacy: Jokowi to Meet Zelensky, Putin,”
Jakarta Globe, June 22, 2022, https://jakartaglobe.id/news/no-megaphone-diplomacy-jokowi-to-meet-zelensky-putin
21 Sui-Lee Wee, “Once Inward-Looking, Joko Widodo Casts Himself as a Global Statesman.”
22 “Indonesia, China agree $1.2 Biln Bost Overrun for High-Speed Train,” Reuters, February 13, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/indonesia-china-agree-12-bln-cost-overrun-high-speed-train-official-2023-02-13/
23 Sui-Lee Wee, “Once Inward-Looking, Joko Widodo Casts Himself as a Global Statesman,”
24 “Indonesia Rejects UN Motion to Scrutinize China’s Human Rights Record,” Jakarta Post, October 7, 2022, https://www.thejakartapost.com/indonesia/2022/10/07/indonesia-rejects-un-motion-to-scrutinize-chinas-human-rights-record.html#:~:text=The%20Council%20rejected%20the%20draft,China%20itself%20voted%20%E2%80%9Cno%E2%80%9D.
25 Oliver Holmes, “Jakarta’s Violent Identity Crisis: Behind the Vilification of Chinese-Indonesians,” The Guardian, November 25, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/nov/25/jakarta-chinese-indonesians-governor-ahok
26 Tiola and Dedi Dinarto, “The Natuna Standoff: Transcending Fisheries Issues?” The Diplomat, November 5, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/11/the-natuna-standoff-transcending-fisheries-issues/
27 “Indonesia Will Not Negotiate Natuna Sovereignty, President Says,” Radio Free Asia, January 6, 2020, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/indonesia-natuna-01062020171056.html
28 “Susi to Sink 30 More Ships after Idul Fitri,” The Jakarta Post, June 10, 2019, https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2019/06/07/susi-to-sink-30-more-ships-after-idul-fitri.html
29 Aristyo Rizka Darmawan, “The Fix: Explaining Indonesia’s silence in the North Natuna Sea,” The Interpreter, September 6, 2023, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/fix-explaining-indonesia-s-silence-north-natuna-sea
30 “Indonesia Will Not Negotiate Natuna Sovereignty,” Radio Free Asia, January 6, 2020, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/indonesia-natuna-01062020171056.html
31 “Indonesia Proposes Critical Minerals Trade Deal with US,” Reuters, September 7, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/business/indonesia-proposes-critical-minerals-trade-deal-with-us-2023-09-07/
32 Joseph Clark, “Super Garuda Shield: U.S., Partners Train in Indo-Pacific,” Department of Defense News, September 12, 2023, https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/3523152/super-garuda-shield-us-partners-train-in-indo-pacific/ ; U.S. Department of Defense, “United States DoD and Indonesia MoD Joint Press Statement,” August 24, 2023, https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3504476/united-states-dod-and-indonesia-mod-joint-press-statement/
33 U.S. Department of Defense, “United States DoD and Indonesia MoD Joint Press Statement,” August 24, 2023, https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3504476/united-states-dod-and-indonesia-mod-joint-press-statement/; “Indonesia to Buy Boeing’s F-15 Jets, Lockheed’s Black Hawk Helicopters,” Defense News, August 23, 2023, https://www.defensenews.com/air/2023/08/23/indonesia-to-buy-boeings-f-15-jets-lockheeds-black-hawk-helicopters/
34 “U.S. Defence Chief Backs Indonesia’s Military Modernization Drive,” Reuters, August 25, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/us-defence-chief-backs-indonesias-military-modernisation-drive-2023-08-25/
35 Evan Laksmana, “Southeast Asian States, Defence Cooperation and Geopolitical Balancing,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, May 30, 2023, https://www.iiss.org/en/online-analysis/online-analysis/2023/05/southeast-asian-states-defence-cooperation-and-geopolitical-balancing/
36 Bonny Lin et al, “Regional Responses to U.S.-China Competition in the Indo-Pacific: Study Overview and Conclusions,” RAND Corporation, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR4400/RR4412/RAND_RR4412.pdf, 24; Jason Glab, “Blockading China: A Guide,” War on the Rocks, October 1, 2013, https://warontherocks.com/2013/10/blockading-china-a-guide/#:~:text=Without%20Indonesian%20support%2C%20only%20a,would%20be%20a%20complicated%20undertaking
37 Natalie Sambhi, “Australia’s Nuclear Submarines and AUKUS: The View From Jakarta,” Brookings Institution, September 21, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/09/21/australias-nuclear-submarines-and-aukus-the-view-from-jakarta/
38 U.S. Department of Defense, “United States DoD and Indonesia MoD Joint Press Statement,” August 24, 2023, https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3504476/united-states-dod-and-indonesia-mod-joint-press-statement/
39 Maria Siow, “Indonesia’s ‘Significant’ South China Sea Comments Not a Sign of a ‘Nascent Alliance,’ with US,” South China Morning Post, August 31, 2023, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3232924/indonesias-significant-south-china-sea-comments-not-sign-nascent-alliance-us
This article, which examines Indonesia’s approach to Ukraine and China, is part of an ongoing series on U.S. statecraft and the Global South developed by the Carnegie Endowment’s American Statecraft Program. For other articles in the series, click here.