Instead, with the TNI having surprisingly little to say about big power involvement in the region, it is the Foreign Ministry which takes the lead by default in pursuing a so-called ‘free and active’ policy, built largely around enhancing ASEAN’s role as a burgeoning but hardly unified regional community.
In its still-to-be-released 2014 Defense White Paper, TNI does acknowledge the possibility of Indonesia being affected if tensions in the South China Sea erupt into conflict. But mostly it plays down external threats and focuses on international terrorism, transnational crime and illegal immigration as priority issues.
In the past two years, TNI commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo has crafted those issues into a newly-developed theory of an international conspiracy in which unnamed foreign states are supposedly using domestic proxies to weaken the country from within and to rob it of its resources.
It remains unclear what real evidence he has to support the idea, but it serves as an ideological justification for the military’s efforts to regain a more prominent role in internal security. As the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) noted in a recent report: “For the TNI, the great value of the proxy war thesis is that it fuses international and domestic threats and suggests that to deal with an external threat, the military must strengthen its internal security role.”
Apart from superficial elements, officials in the wider region complain that Indonesia doesn’t have a coherent foreign policy. Domestic critics agree, saying the problem lies in the whole policy-making process itself.
Even continuing to place ASEAN as a cornerstone of what is largely a reactive policy isn’t convincing given the fact that most Indonesians see the newly-implemented ASEAN Economic Community as a more of a threat than a challenge because of logistical and educational weaknesses.
Yudhoyono openly welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia”—and the training of U.S. Marines in northern Australia—because he was worried the serious inroads the Chinese were making into the region threatened to squeeze ASEAN apart.
But if it was a good example of SBY being a “foreign policy president,” Indonesia has since failed to build on the leadership role it saw for itself under his presidency, or in advancing the concept of a Code of Conduct that will hopefully make the South China Sea a safer place.
John McBeth is a Jakarta-based correspondent. This article first appeared in the Strategist.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Saberwyn.