Continuity in Indonesia’s Strategy in the South China Sea Under Joko Widodo

Published date01 December 2021
Date01 December 2021
AuthorAngguntari C. Sari
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
Continuity in Indonesia’s
Strategy in the South
China Sea Under
Joko Widodo
Angguntari C. Sari1
This study seeks to address two interrelated questions: Does Indonesia
underbalance against China? Why does President Joko Widodo stick with the
strategy of to this day? The study lays out three main arguments. First, there are
two types of strategies: the appropriate and inappropriate one (under-balancing).
Indonesia, under the first and beginning of the second term of Jokowi presidency,
adopts the prudent strategy. Thus, it does not underbalance against the Chinese
military threats in the South China Sea. Such prudent strategy consists of several
dimensions: facilitating the United States’ security presence in Asia, engaging
major powers such as China in bilateral and multilateral economic and political
military ties to socialise China into a peace-loving country. Second, Indonesia’s
non-balancing action, which is the second-best strategy after a more traditional
direct internal and external military balancing, is considered a prudent choice, for
three main reasons: (a) it is predicated on the assessment that China is perceived
as a risk-averse limited-aims revisionist power; (b) Indonesia has very limited
capacity to directly balance China and (c) the United States is perceived to be
willing and able to balance China. Lastly, the continuity of this strategy, which
started during the post-Cold War era, is partly related to the positive feedback
effects or self-reinforcing process of existing formal institutions.
Indonesia, foreign policy, neorealism, neoclassical realism, South China Sea
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
8(3) 346–369, 2021
© The Author(s) 2021
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970211039310
1 School of Politics and Global Studies, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA.
Corresponding author:
Angguntari C. Sari, School of Politics and Global Studies, Arizona State University, Lattie F. Coor
Hall, 6th Floor, 975 S. Myrtle Avenue, Tempe, AZ 85287-3902, USA.
Sari 347
A subset of research on international security in Asia has applied the neoclassical
realist framework to understand Indonesia’s foreign policy under President Joko
‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s stance towards China’s activities in the South China Sea (SCS)
(Laksmana & Supriyanto, 2018; Syailendra, 2017). Scholarship on this topic has
suggested that Indonesia’s foreign policy does not conform to the neorealists’
prediction of balancing. However, there are different views among scholars
about how best to characterise Indonesia’s foreign policy or strategy in the case
of SCS disputes: under-balancing vs hedging strategy/middle strategy—states
cannot follow a more straightforward strategy like balancing, band wagoning or
neutrality (Goh, 2006; Laksmana, 2016a). With the victory of Jokowi in the 2019
presidential election, it was an opportune time to revisit the type of balancing
strategy pursued by Indonesia during the beginning of Jokowi’s leadership, the
trajectory of this strategy at the start of Jokowi’s second term, and their outcomes.
This study seeks to re-examine the type of balancing strategy pursued by
Indonesia during the beginning of Jokowi’s leadership, the trajectory of this
strategy at the start of Jokowi’s second term and their outcomes. Given the
popularity of neoclassical realism in the recent scholarship on the security dynamics
in the SCS, this study borrows the often-cited work of a neoclassical realist, Randall
Schweller (2006), to examine not only the nature of threat Indonesian government
is facing in the SCS, but also the appropriateness of its response towards the China
threat (Goh, 2007; Laksmana, 2016a; Syailendra, 2017).
With regards to China–Indonesia relations in the SCS, there is a widely shared
view that the Indonesian government has underbalanced, that is, it failed to build
military alliance or military capability, despite China’s provocative action that
encroach into Indonesian territory. While there is some merit to this argument,
particularly the characterisation of Chinese action in the SCS, the idea that the
Indonesian government under balances China’s aggressiveness deserves further
scrutiny. Thus, this study contends that a closer look at Schweller’s work could
yield a different conclusion about the nature and appropriateness of the Indonesian
government’s response to it.
As the next section of this article will demonstrate, China is a dissatisfied
revisionist power, but not the most virulent kind of revisionist who seeks global
domination and ideological supremacy, which is also known as revolutionary
power. Rather, it represents a kind of revisionist power that is more interested in
domination at the regional level (limited aim/non-revolutionary goal) and avoid
systemic war to achieve its goals. However, not all limited-aims revisionists are
the same. Some are more ambitious in goal and risk acceptant in terms of risk
propensity than the others. If a limited-aims risk-averse power only seeks prestige
and opportunistic in its attempt to advance its goal, China seems to represent a
limited-aims risk acceptance power. This type of dissatisfied power is typically a
regional power trying to advance prestige demands such as recognition as an
equal among great powers and territorial ones to reflect their increased power
(Schweller, 2006, pp. 29–33). Although China has been increasingly aggressive in
its attempt to pursue its goals, it is opportunistic rather than reckless in its attempts
to improve its power positions (risk-averse).

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