Projecting Indonesia’s Influence in the Global Political Stage

by Rendy Wirawan K., Post Graduate International Relations Student at the University of Melbourne

Scholars argue that Indonesia today is climbing up to achieve the rising power status, if not at the global stage, at least at the regional level. Rising Indonesia affects its ability to influence other states both at the regional and international arena. So, where is Indonesia compared to Australia, Singapore, China, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan? Those are some countries listed under the Lowy Institute Asian Power Index where the survey puts Indonesia on the 10th rank, ahead of Thailand and Vietnam. On this commentary, I would like to argue that Indonesia is placed at least in the middle-up position among those countries. Of course, the argument was not determined on the basis of neither a science nor statistical research with an exact number of rank, and the result might vary accordingly to each factor we examine through. Among various factors that shape Indonesia as a rising power in the global arena, this commentary only investigates two of the most significant factors or components that contribute more: (1) normative power that bridges East and West; and (2) global diplomacy.

The two components of our discussion above are derived from the soft power approach. Based on those factors, Indonesia is more appealing than some countries on our list. Many scholars undermine Indonesian capacity to influence other countries by soley investigating its material capacity such economy and military. While I do not dimiss the validity of such indicators. For instance, Robinson and Hadiz offer a very insightful perspective in viewing Indonesia as a middle country rather than rising power due to the failure of the government to achieve the expected economic boom after the fall of Soeharto’s regime. Similarly, Weatherbee argues that Indonesia is not significantly moving forward, trapped in a condition where the country can foster its influence international arena but fail. Borrowing Emmerson’s argument that ‘the rise of Indonesia is led by the country’s prominence and lagged by its performance’, therefore, Indonesia might be positioned in the under-rank class.

However, this commentary is designed more optimistically, finding that there are keys for Indonesia to successfully climbing up towards international status and influences other countries. The influence we refer to is the ability to give impact towards the other preferences in making a decision. Two factors mentioned earlier are the finest that Indonesia has compared to other countries. First, Indonesia position as the third largest democratic country combined with more than 80% of the Muslim population in size, composes a unique social architecture that could bridge Western liberal values with Eastern traditionalism. Muslims in Indonesia are more flexible and welcome to accept new norms, including democracy, as part of their life. This feature enables Indonesia to act as a bridge between the West and Muslim worlds. At a glance, Indonesia can improve the image of Islam as a peaceful and humanistic religion, also prove that the clash of civilisation is incorrect, that Islam dan democracy is compatible with each other. Beyond, Indonesia plays the role of a trustworthy actor in international forum representing both Muslim countries and Western interests. Bruinessen articulates that although Indonesia had no remarkable role in Organisation of Islamic Conference, back in the Reformation era, the government had performed a modest role in mediating international conflicts under “Muslim” narratives, e.g. the Philippines and the Middle East. Progressive moves have been taken during Megawati until Jokowi administration. Beginning as the first Muslim majority country to declare war on terror led by the US to the very active role of Indonesia in global Islamic forums. This beneficial setting of Indonesia is beyond any other seven countries on the list but does not mean Indonesia is more influencing than others in the general context.

The second component is the Indonesian active global diplomacy. This commentary believes that Indonesia is on the middle-up rank of the list, leaving South Korea, Singapore, Australia, Thailand and Vietnam behind. Undoubtedly, unbeatable are China and Japan, their influence in global politics, or at least at the regional level, remain very significant. Both countries enjoy a constructive reputation. For China, in many occasions portray itself as the role model of the Third World countries to follow, enabling itself to manage disputes through diplomacy with its allies easily. The most evident issue is the South China Sea conflict where ASEAN never come for a consensus against this dispute because China tries to block the negotiation through member states like Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Japan, on the other hand, has taken more significant roles in the region with two objectives, as a balance to China and representative of the US in the region. By 2005 Japan has successfully managed to extend East Asian Summit 2005 with the participation of the US although China initially refused and its attempt as WTO regional leadership and G7/G8 member considered successful in channelling Asian voice.

For Indonesia, Santikajaya shows how Indonesia becomes an influencing middle power through its global diplomacy where Indonesia could manage its international and regional reputation via normative values and regional leadership. Santikajaya notices that Indonesia has taken many roles at various prestigious international forums and convincingly produces normative results. For instance, Indonesia’s involvement in G8 allows the country to struggle for developing countries, its contribution to peacekeeping enables the country to propose a reformation within UNSC and in the global environmental forum that actively advocates for nature conservation. In the regional context, Indonesia’s role in ASEAN as a natural leader gives the country lots of homework to deal with. Indonesia focus on ASEAN’s development brings the country to ambitiously expand the role of ASEAN in the Asia Pacific, creating a house for peaceful countries with shared objectives and policies. All these examples lead Indonesia as a critical regional and global player with the ability to influence other by its global diplomacy skill, and this is what other five countries on the list have no tantamount position with Indonesia. Except for Singapore with its recent ability to create a breakthrough in international relations by successfully carrying out a historical meeting between North Korea and the US. The success of Singapore is a total embarrassment to Indonesia as the first country North Korea sought to mediate the talk between herself and the US. For this, Singapore must be seen as an essential player in shaping current global politics ahead of Indonesia.

To wrap up, this commentary has examined two significant components that contribute to the ability of Indonesia to influence other countries through soft power: democratic Islam and global diplomacy. Of course, Indonesia would never be on the top of the list, at least soon, but to put Indonesia down under is an insult. Therefore, this commentary argues that Indonesia is on the middle-up list because the country has successfully maintained the relation between Western and Muslim worlds as well as managing its prominent role in both key international and regional forums. However, it is necessary to examine Indonesia’s influence in other factors, such as military and economy, and it does not rule out the possibility that Indonesia might be ranked even to the very bottom of the list.

(Disclaimer: This article has been edited and was submitted as one of the writer’s assignments in his post-graduate course).