Balancing with Jokowi’s Characteristics: A Neoclassical Realism Approach to Indonesia’s Foreign and Security Policies in the South China Sea

Publication Date01 December 2021
DOI10.1177/23477970211041455
Date01 December 2021
AuthorMuhamad Arif
SubjectResearch Articles
Research Article
Balancing with Jokowi’s
Characteristics:
A Neoclassical
Realism Approach to
Indonesia’s Foreign and
Security Policies in the
South China Sea
Muhamad Arif1
Abstract
The objectives of this article are twofold. First, it seeks to posit Jokowi’s foreign
and security policies in the broader historical context of Indonesian foreign
and security policymaking. Throughout history, Indonesia’s responses to its
external environment, as manifested in its foreign and security policies, have
been significantly influenced by a range of domestic factors including leaders’
personality and his/her attitude to international politics. Building upon the
historical observation, this article seeks to understand Jokowi’s foreign and
security policies in the South China Sea using a neoclassical realism framework.
It argues that there has been a shift in Indonesia’s approach to the South China
Sea problem, characterised by a more active and pragmatic diplomacy and a more
assertive approach to territorial integrity. Both components, however, are not
deterministic products of external threats as predicted by neorealist theories.
Instead, they are influenced by Jokowi’s personality, attitude towards foreign and
security policy and preoccupation of his administration with the domestic agenda.
Keywords
Indonesia’s foreign policy, Jokowi, neoclassical realism, South China Sea, Natuna,
Global Maritime Fulcrum
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
8(3) 370–390, 2021
© The Author(s) 2021
Reprints and permissions:
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DOI: 10.1177/23477970211041455
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1 Department of International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Indonesia,
Depok, Indonesia.
Corresponding author:
Muhamad Arif, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Gedung
Nusantara 2 Lantai 2, Universitas Indonesia, Depok 16424, Indonesia.
E-mail: m.arif108@ui.ac.id
Arif 371
The multi-layered problems in the South China Sea have for long been prime
security concerns to Indonesia. Indonesia cannot afford to see its emerging
economy disrupted by conflict in the South China Sea. Moreover, disputes over the
rights to exploit natural resources in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near
the Natuna Islands have allowed numerous incursions by foreign maritime law
enforcement and fishing vessels, especially China, challenging Indonesia’s
territorial integrity. In recent years, under President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), there
appears to be a shift in Indonesia’s approach to the problem. Its diplomacy has
been more active. It continues to push for the conclusion of the South China Sea
code of conduct, made its latest attempt to regulate great powers’ behaviour in the
region through an ASEAN Indo-Pacific outlook and publicly demanded China
notably, Jokowi’s Indonesia has moved away from the previously cautious
approach to safeguarding its territory from China’s encroachment. Its armed forces
have also been restructured and redeployed to match the increasing level of threats.
Has Indonesia finally embarked on a balancing act against the rising China, as
dominant realist theories in International Relations would have predicted
(Mearsheimer, 2003; Waltz, 1979)? How distinct is the Indonesian approach to
world politics under Jokowi compared to his predecessors? How should we
understand the nature of Indonesian foreign and security policy in the South China
Sea under President Jokowi? These are the questions that guide this article.
The objectives of this article are twofold. First, it seeks to posit Jokowi’s foreign
and security policies in the broader historical context of Indonesian foreign and
security policymaking. It argues that throughout history, Indonesia’s responses to
its external environment, as manifested in its foreign and security policies, have
been significantly influenced by a range of domestic factors including, but not
limited to, leaders’ personality and his/her attitude to international politics. The
domestic factors’ dominant role has led different Indonesian leaders to respond
differently—in terms of timing, approach and substance—to relatively similar
constraints and opportunities presented by their respective external environments.
Indonesia’s recent foreign and security policies in the South China Sea fit
comfortably in this pattern.
Second, this article builds upon the historical observation to understand
Indonesia’s foreign and security policies under Jokowi using a neoclassical
realism framework that places systemic factors as the independent variables with
domestic-level factors as intervening variables. In achieving this objective, this
article examines Indonesia’s foreign and security policies in the South China Sea
under Jokowi. It argues that there has been a shift in Indonesia’s approach to the
South China Sea problem, characterised by a more active diplomacy and a more
assertive approach to territorial integrity. Both components, however, are not
deterministic products of external threats as predicted by realist theories. Instead,
they are influenced by Jokowi’s personality, attitude towards foreign and security
policy and preoccupation of his administration with the domestic agenda.
Indonesia under Jokowi has not embarked on an effective and coherent
balancing strategy against the rise of China’s power in the South China Sea that
threatens its territorial integrity and interests (Laksmana, 2016). However, it has

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