Authors: Demas Nauvarian and Putu Shangrina Pramudia, CSGS
On 26 July 2022, Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in China. The meeting was a surprise given Beijing’s strict zero-COVID-19 policy. A main outcome was the renewal of the memorandum of understanding on cooperation between Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF), a framework to to turn Indonesia into a global maritime hub, and China’s Maritime Silk Road under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The visit and agreement seem to demonstrate Jokowi’s commitment to his cooperative GMF vision. Said to be Indonesia’s maritime cooperation strategy, the GMF received support from India, Australia, Japan, the United States and China when presented at the East Asia Summit in November 2014. Others argued that the GMF was Indonesia’s ‘middle power strategy’ — to strengthen economic cooperation with China while keeping Washington engaged in Indo Pacific security — in response to great power rivalry.
The GMF is now nothing but a foreign policy myth. Many mark the start of Jokowi’s second term in 2019 as the GMF’s ‘official time of death’. Instead of re-emphasising the nation’s maritime identity and GMF vision during the 2019 presidential debate, Jokowi argued that Indonesia’s diplomatic power was based on its identity as the world’s largest Muslim country.
Indonesia’s foreign policy has no strategic doctrine. Under Jokowi, foreign policy has been pragmatic and focussed on tangible deliverables towards Indonesia’s economic growth.
The GMF was expected to operationalise Indonesia’s middlepowership. But it is little more than a geopolitical statement. Indonesian maritime researcher Evan Laksmana argues that the GMF was never a well-developed grand strategy. It is instead a bureaucratic institution that helps build internal infrastructure connectivity in Indonesia.
Indonesia continues to sideline maritime security, as is indicated by the domination of the land branch in Indonesia’s military leadership and its weak stance on transnational maritime issues such as illegal fishing. Before the 2014 presidential campaign, Jokowi had no interest in the maritime sector. The issue may have been cooked-up as an empty campaign promise by one of his advisors.
The GMF has failed to help Indonesia reach its full maritime potential. This is where China’s BRI comes in. When Jokowi realised that the GMF had encountered the same budgetary constraints as other infrastructure projects, he turned to the solution that has become the face of his foreign policy — economic diplomacy for investment.
The BRI provides an alternative source of funding for Indonesia’s infrastructure-building. It became a hassle-free scheme to facilitate Jokowi’s development ambitions. The BRI provided ‘like-for-like’ solutions to the problems encountered by the GMF.
But the document outlining the possible areas of cooperation between the BRI and GMF provided no practical mechanisms through which to achieve equal cooperation. Even China’s justification for BRI–GMF cooperation failed to spell out how Indonesia could contribute to the joint scheme.
There is a more fundamental incongruence that made the BRI and GMF unable to peacefully co-exist. Implementing the GMF would use up significant economic and political resources. By enforcing the GMF, Indonesia would claim not only its maritime rights, but it would also assume the responsibility of becoming a regional maritime power.
To stay true to its foreign policy adherence to the status quo, Indonesia will need to be stern about maritime rules and regulations. But enforcing the GMF would have meant increasing its unilateral contribution to regional security and ultimately having a face-off with China over disputed maritime territory. Jokowi’s government chose not to take on this burden.
China’s maritime strategy has challenged the status quo of the international maritime order. Its ideal maritime vision is one of soft power competition in which the sea is a ‘free field’ of cooperation and competition — despite using grey-zone warfare in the South China Sea. China has utilised the BRI as a geoeconomic bargaining tool to create economic interdependency with countries in the region.
The BRI and Maritime Silk Road brought China economic benefits while Indonesia sheltered under multilateral fora, such as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, without crafting its own vision of regional maritime order.
When the Jokowi administration realised that, even as a maritime connectivity project, the GMF would require too much sacrifice, they turned to China’s BRI. The prospect of being a regional power was not enough for Jokowi to risk his political legitimacy on a confrontation with China or increasing military spending at the expense of development. But maritime connectivity infrastructure was important to the administration — so the GMF met its doom.
The GMF would have been a new milestone in Indonesia’s grand strategy. Revitalising its national identity and forming a geopolitical affiliation would have been historical. The BRI is ironically a product of China’s grandiose maritime transformation — a process similar to that which would have produced the GMF. China is now a regional maritime power with global ambitions.
There is one thing that China had while spearheading its maritime transformation that Indonesia lacked during the early stages of the GMF — political will. Political will is needed to overcome the bureaucracy, political contestation and budgetary problems that constrain Indonesian policymaking.
The upcoming 2024 election raises the question of whether any candidate has the political will to gamble their domestic political legitimacy on pursuing a clear foreign policy vision. The rise of a candidate with a comprehensive view of global politics, foreign policy expertise and idealism about Indonesia’s place in the world can make this a reality. Only then can a well-constructed grand strategy such as the GMF hope to thrive.
Demas Nauvarian is a research staff at the Center for Strategic and Global Studies, Airlangga University, Indonesia.
Putu Shangrina Pramudia is a research staff at the Center for Strategic and Global Studies, Airlangga University, Indonesia.
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