Diplomacy & International Relations

Indonesia’s multi-alignment: between BRICS, Washington and Beijing. In dialogue with Jürgen Rüland (University of Freiburg)

(Marco Emanuele)

The Global Eye in dialogue with Jürgen Rüland, professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Freiburg, Germany. From 2009 to 2019 he was the speaker of the University of Freiburg’s Southeast Asia research program. Among his more recent publications are “The Indonesian Way. ASEAN, Europeanization, and Foreign Policy debates in a New Democracy,” Stanford University Press, 2017 and “Handbook of Global and Regional Governance,” Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2022 (co-edited with Astrid Carrapatoso)

Indonesia and BRICS. What are the prospects for integration?

Since its formation in 2009, the BRICS forum, consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, has become an influential platform for large countries of the Global South to challenge what they consider a global order dominated by the West. In recent years, due to its intensifying rivalry with the United States, especially China has shown a strong interest in enlarging BRICS.
At its August 2023 summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, BRICS members decided to enlarge the forum. Six countries eventually joined BRICS: Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Ethiopia. Yet many observers wondered why Indonesia was not among the accession states. After all, Indonesia’s membership has been discussed since 2011 and all original BRICS members had courted Indonesia to join.
As stated by Indonesian President Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi), Indonesia declined membership in the club, because it did not want to rush a decision and needs more time to study the pros and cons of joining.
This was the official explanation. But what were reasons beneath the surface?
First, Indonesia regards BRICS’s trajectory including China’s aggressive attempts to enlarge the forum, as a new form of bloc building. This is incompatible with Indonesia’s age-honored policy of non-alignment.
Second, BRICS membership would be perceived as a shift towards China and Russia, which would be at variance with Indonesia’s hedging policy and the countries “free and active” doctrine that can be traced as far back as the beginnings of independent Indonesia.
Third, although Indonesia shares many objectives of BRICS to reform the international institutional architecture, it has – unlike some BRICS members – avoided shrill rhetoric and sought to be a force of moderation that constructively seeks to bridge differences between the Global North and the Global South. A BRICS membership would contradict Indonesia’s much cherished foreign policy role conception of “good global citizen.”
Fourth and, finally, Indonesia seeks to join the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in an attempt to accelerate its socioeconomic development and achieve the status of a developed country. An accession to BRICS may jeopardize OECD membership, as the OECD is an organization mainly composed of Western industrial nations.

Why is Indonesia such a geopolitically important country?

There is a number of factors that make Indonesia a geopolitically significant country. One is the archipelago’s strategic location at the cross-roads of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. It sits at shipping routes through which roughly 80 percent of global trade transit and it is located at the southern tip of the contested South China Sea, 90 percent of which is claimed by China. As security communities over the world expect a continuous gravitational shift of political and economic power from the West to the Indo-Pacific region, by default Indonesia has become a country attracting increased attention of foreign policymakers. Contributing to this heightened interest in Indonesia is the country’s large size, the fact that with roughly 275 million people it is the fourth most populous country world-wide and the nation which is home to the globe’s largest Muslim population. Moreover, Indonesia has a fast growing economy and hopes to reach the status of a developed country at its centennial in 2045. Finally, Indonesia is the primus inter pares of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Asia’s leading regional organization, which aspires to be an institution-builder, moderator, mediator and peace-builder in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Quali sono gli interessi di Washington e Pechino rispetto a Giakarta?

Sia Washington che Pechino competono per il favore dell’Indonesia. Cercano di persuadere il governo indonesiano a prendere posizione nella competizione tra Stati Uniti e Cina nella regione dell’Indo-Pacifico. Dato il peso geopolitico dell’Indonesia, uno spostamento dell’Indonesia verso uno dei due contendenti cambierebbe notevolmente l’equazione di potere nel Sud-Est asiatico. La Cina sta cercando di aumentare la propria influenza a Giakarta principalmente attraverso l’espansione delle relazioni economiche. È diventato il principale partner commerciale dell’Indonesia e gli investimenti cinesi nel paese sono in aumento. Con il suo progetto Belt-and-Road (BRI), un programma di sviluppo infrastrutturale globale a lungo termine da mille miliardi di dollari, la Cina sostiene la modernizzazione delle infrastrutture dell’Indonesia sotto il presidente Jokowi. Durante la pandemia di Covid-19, in qualità di fornitore di vaccini, la Cina ha cercato di creare un “soft power” per rafforzare i suoi legami con l’Indonesia Sebbene l’Indonesia cerchi di trarre vantaggio dall’impegno economico cinese, molti indonesiani sono diffidenti nei confronti della crescente influenza di Pechino nel loro paese. Le invasioni cinesi nella zona economica esclusiva dell’Indonesia (ZEE) vicino alle isole Natuna e le preoccupazioni che gli investimenti infrastrutturali di Pechino possano rivelarsi una trappola del debito, inducono il governo indonesiano ad essere cauto nelle sue relazioni con la Cina. Pertanto, l’Indonesia – come molti altri paesi del sud-est asiatico – persegue una politica di copertura, che implica intrattenere strette relazioni economiche con la Cina, bilanciate da una più stretta relazione di sicurezza con Washington.

(riproduzione autorizzata citando la fonte)