Indonesia’s China and US Approach: Crafting Policies Out of Standard Operating Procedures

Date01 December 2021
Publication Date01 December 2021
DOI10.1177/23477970211041662
Author Tiola
SubjectResearch Articles
Indonesia’s China and
US Approach: Crafting
Policies Out of Standard
Operating Procedures
Tiola1
Abstract
This article examines Indonesia’s perceptions, strategies and policies towards the
USA and China under the presidencies of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004–
2014) and Joko Widodo’s first term and early second term (2014–2020). It
argues that on a strategic level, Indonesia’s behaviours are in line with structural
realist principles, where it adopts a prudent approach of maintaining its strategic
autonomy. However, deviations from structural realism are identified in the
operationalisation of this strategy into specific foreign and security policies.
This article explains such deviations by employing Graham Allison and Philip
Zelikow’s models of decision-making, and argues that such suboptimal policies
are driven by two domestic political factors, namely, organisational behaviour
and governmental politics. Specifically, the article highlights two key tendencies:
(a) that policy makers tend to stick to some a priori guidelines within their
organisations, despite changes in external pressures; and (b) that policies tend to
be by-products of competition between government organisations. In Indonesia–
China relations, these tendencies are most apparent in Indonesia’s approach in
the South China Sea, where policies and narratives articulated by the government
have been largely stagnant, despite increased intensity of China’s activities in
Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. With regard to the USA, these factors
manifest in the lack of tangible progress in defence and security cooperation
between the two countries, due to a static interpretation of Indonesia’s Free and
Active foreign policy maxim.
Keywords
Indonesia, USA, China, foreign policy, decision-making, domestic politics
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
8(3) 324–345, 2021
© The Author(s) 2021
Reprints and permissions:
in.sagepub.com/journals-permissions-india
DOI: 10.1177/23477970211041662
journals.sagepub.com/home/aia
1 S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Corresponding author:
Tiola, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, 50 Nanyang
Ave, Block S4, Level B3, Singapore 639798, Singapore.
E-mail: tiolafnu@gmail.com
Research Article
Tiola 325
Introduction
In the past decade, Indonesia’s relations with the USA and the People’s Republic
of China have gone through limited policy changes, despite dynamic geostrategic
developments in the Indo-Pacific. With regard to the USA, although ties have
been normalised after USA lifted its arms embargo against Indonesia in the mid-
2000s, a more substantial cooperation has yet taken place. Throughout the past
few years, US and Indonesian officials often describe their relationship as full of
potentials—yet to date, those potentials do not seem to have fully materialised.
The US armed forces have little comprehensive ties with the Indonesian Military
(Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI), compared to some other militaries in Southeast
Asia (Kurlantzick, 2018). Official interactions between the two countries also
tend to look good on the surface, but rarely translated into meaningful strategic
relations on the ground. Indonesia’s relations with China, on the other hand, have
grown closer. With China, Indonesia displayed very limited changes in its policies
related to the South China Sea since early 1990s, despite increased China’s
assertiveness in the area.
This article highlights that, in the past decade, a large part of Indonesia’s policies
related to its relations with USA and China has been rather stagnant. I make two
contributions. First, I argue that such stagnancy is largely caused by two domestic
political factors, namely, organisational behaviour and governmental politics.
Specifically, I highlight that: (a) policy makers tend to stick to some a priori
guidelines, norms or ‘standard operating procedures’ within their organisations,
although systemic pressure regionally and globally demands them to do otherwise;
and (b) that policies tend to be by-products of competition between government
organisations. In Indonesia–China relations, these manifest in Indonesia’s approach
in the South China Sea, where the government has been maintaining the same
rhetoric, despite China’s increasing assertiveness. In terms of Indonesia–USA
relations, a rather static interpretation of Indonesia’s foreign policy principle of
Bebas Aktif (Free and Active) has resulted in a lack of tangible progress in defence
and security cooperation between the two countries.
Second, I make distinctions between the role of domestic politics at the
policy level and the grand strategy level. In literature related to the role of
domestic politics, there is a tendency to automatically link the complications of
domestic politics with flawed or anomalous strategies (i.e., strategies that are not
in line with structural realist principles). While this article agrees that domestic
political factors often result in behaviours which deviate from neorealism, it aims
to highlight the extent and level in which such sub-optimality manifests. A state’s
domestic politics can result in a number of sub-optimal policies, but these may not
necessarily implicate on a state’s grand strategy. Admittedly, a large a number of
policy blunders could result in the shift to a sub-optimal grand strategy. However,
the article emphasises that it is important to make distinctions between the two.
Further, this article argues that while organisational behaviour and governmental
politics result in a number of sub-optimal foreign and security policies; Indonesia’s
grand strategy of strategic autonomy towards USA and China is still in line with
structural realist tenets.

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