From Jakarta to Oceania: Indonesia’s Cultural Diplomacy with the South Pacific

AuthorBaiq Wardhani
Published date01 April 2023
Date01 April 2023
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
From Jakarta to
Oceania: Indonesia’s
Cultural Diplomacy
with the South Pacific
Baiq Wardhani1
The South Pacific region has become a top foreign policy priority for Jakarta.
This essay explains Indonesia’s utilisation of the cultural approach in its
diplomatic engagement with the South Pacific. Cultural dissemination as a tool
of international relations is scantly studied even though its use in diplomacy has
successfully forged mutual understanding between people of discrete backgrounds.
Indonesia uses a cultural approach to catch up diplomatically in its neighbouring,
but previously overlooked, region and to address its ‘poor image’ problem
that has persisted there for more than three decades. The cultural approach
is intended to complement political and economic approaches. This study aims
to bridge the gap in the literature vis-à-vis the role of culture in shaping foreign
policy goals. Indonesia undertakes this ‘soft diplomacy’ based on its long-term
orientation toward its national identity, politico-business and strategic interests.
The Indonesian government is optimistic that cultural diplomacy will succeed in
enhancing Indonesia’s status in this zone.
Cultural diplomacy, identity, foreign policy, Indonesia, Oceania
Indonesia has faced diplomatic difficulties with its Pacific neighbours, which
it now needs to redress. Indonesia disregarded most Pacific countries for many
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
10(1) 47–64, 2023
© The Author(s) 2023
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970231152011
1 Department of International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas
Airlangga, Surabaya, Indonesia
Corresponding author:
Baiq Wardhani, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences,
Universitas Airlangga, Surabaya 60115, Indonesia.
E-mails: baiq.wardhani@f‌ (institutional); (personal)
48 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 10(1)
decades, having taken the region for granted as its ‘backyard’. The Pacific region
was neglected to some extent and was absent from strategic calculations. Although
previous governments, with the exception of those during President Sukarno’s
administration (1967–1998), had initiated cooperation, attention to the Pacific
intensified under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004–2014). Suharto
established diplomatic relations with a limited number of Pacific states to address
specific issues, in particular, with Papua New Guinea to settle border issues. The
short-lived presidency of B. J. Habibie (1998–1999) instituted significant changes
in foreign policy even though they did not directly affect the Pacific region; for
instance, he accentuated human rights diplomacy. President Abdurrahman Wahid
(1999–2001) founded the Southwest Pacific Dialogue (SwPD) in 2001 to leverage
Indonesia’s influence in the Pacific region. President Megawati Sukarnoputri
(2001–2004) produced no significant contribution to foreign policy towards the
Pacific region, but her administration began the process of reinstating Indonesia’s
international reputation thanks to a massive reorganisation of the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs.
In 2004, during the Yudhoyono administration, Indonesia displayed greater
political stability at home and a higher profile in its foreign policy of substantive
and intellectual leadership. Under Yudhoyono’s leadership, Indonesia restruc-
tured its orientation toward the Pacific by demonstrating a meaningful foreign
policy toward a region it had long considered as its ‘backyard’. Yudhoyono used
the magic words ‘connectivity’ and ‘identity’ to undertake numerous measures to
improve bilateral and multilateral relationships with countries in this region. His
successor, the current President Joko Widodo, has sustained the efforts of his pre-
decessor, effecting many improvements in ties with Pacific countries. Widodo has
generated more tangible political, economic and cultural changes in Indonesia’s
foreign policy towards the Pacific. This study specifically observes the cultural
approach. It is evident that President Widodo employs culture as a means beyond
traditional hard power tools to approach Indonesia’s eastern neighbours. As
argued in another section of this article, Indonesia, in its relationships with Pacific
countries, needs to ‘act outside the box with the countries in the region, represent-
ing a “non-formal” pillar according to their ways’ (Wardhani & Dugis, 2020,
p. 20). Like other countries in pursuit of national interest, Indonesia uses culture
as one pillar of multi-track diplomacy. Indonesia has introduced soft power
(co-optive power), which Nye (1990, p. 167) claims to be ‘just as important as
hard command power’. To attract Pacific countries, Jakarta emphasises the simi-
larities of their cultures, including shared ethnicity with the subregions of
Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.
A cultural approach has always been relevant for the fostering of diplomatic
relations with the Pacific countries. In addition, the identity card discharges a
significant attraction for the indigenous people of the region. Indonesia must
select the right tools to navigate its turbulent relations with the Pacific countries
and to serve its own high-stake national interests. Culture as a tool has been shown
to achieve foreign policy goals and foster interstate relationships (Bethke, 2016;
Critchlow, 2004; Lebow, 2009; Mazarr, 1996; Seeger, 1949; Vlahos, 1991), but its
importance remains under-investigated. In particular, few studies have investigated
the use of culture as a diplomatic tool in the Pacific region.

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