Indonesia is facing difficulties to suppress the number of COVID-19 infections due to limited medical equipment, infrastructure and human resources. With a depressed state capacity on one hand and President Jokowi’s unique foreign policy outlook on the other, Indonesia might be forced to shift some of its international agendas as the pandemic rages on.


Since the first case of COVID-19 was announced by President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) on 2 March 2020, Indonesia has recorded over 16,000 positive cases with fatalities measuring beyond 1,000. These figures meant that Indonesia has the highest fatality rate among ASEAN Member States and the second highest in terms of total confirmed cases at the time of writing.

Due to limited capacity for testing and tracking, some have suspected that the numbers may be higher. Media and analysts have pointed out several weaknesses in the way Indonesia has tackled the ongoing pandemic.

A slow response – even denial – from central government at the initial stage of the pandemic exacerbated the complicated hierarchical relationship between central and local governments. Meanwhile, a limited number of hospital beds as well as testing kits, labs and human resources indicate that the country has an inadequate healthcare infrastructure to deal with COVID-19.

Today, some metropolitan cities including Jakarta are implementing a strategy called Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar (Large Scale Social Distancing), almost similar to Malaysia’s Movement Control Order (MCO), albeit less restrictive. However, various discussions among officials as well as citizens today also indicate that the discourse is shifting away from lockdown measures to easing of restrictions. These give rise to speculation that Indonesia could follow the steps of Sweden, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands by heading towards herd immunity.

This shift is arguably due to the massive fiscal burden suffered by the government today as poverty levels predictably soar to above 10 percent. By mid-April, more than 2 million Indonesians had reportedly lost their jobs, while the Indonesian Chamber of Trade and Industry argued that 15 million Indonesians have probably lost their source of income if numbers of informal sectors are included.

What do these circumstances mean for Indonesia’s international standing? The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed one of the most endemic problems faced by the Indonesian government: state capacity. Prior to the pandemic, Indonesia was well known at the global stage for its achievements made since Reformasi in terms of democratic consolidation, the ability to minimise the risk of disintegration and solid macroeconomic policies. Indonesia obtained a bigger profile as one of ASEAN’s founding members, a key actor in regional security, its position in the G20 grouping, its increasing activism in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and its growing agenda in the South West Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.

Today, however, as analysts and commentators express their concerns over slow responses and ineffective leadership of the Jokowi administration, longue durée factors do matter in shaping the real foundation of Indonesia’s capacity. For foreign policy, these circumstances may further demonstrate the tensions between Indonesian aspirations and institutions, which have been apparent since Jokowi took office in 2014.

Jokowi inherited a structure of governance from previous administrations. Indonesian democracy has been relatively consolidated albeit the remaining problems of political party roles, institutionalisation and the unfinished business of civil-military relations despite its promising economic growth. His perception on foreign policy is rather distinct: his take was that the previous administration’s foreign policy was more dedicated towards image building and less towards boosting up state capacity.

He was initially more concerned with inequality, bothered by the fact that national markets were not fully connected and integrated. He also saw problems in tax ratios and possibly the unanswered promise of Indonesia’s demographic bonus. Moreover, in an interview with some of his advisors back in 2015, they indicated that the President was concerned about how Indonesia can “graduate” from a “donor-receiver” to becoming a self-reliant country. In the case of this pandemic, it translates into the state providing sanitation, treatment and basic compensation for its disadvantaged subjects.

Foreign policy and strategic discourses were then set under some key rubrics such as “down-to-earth diplomacy” and “the Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF)”. Coherent within these ideas is that a strong, stable and well-connected Indonesia is key for national security and regional stability. The idea was criticised by various experts and pundits that an inward-looking Indonesia is bad for the country, contrarian to its aspiration to attract more investment, and would eventually undermine ASEAN. By the time he resumed power in the second term, the agenda of economic diplomacy was elevated as the main rubric of foreign policy with specific objectives such as continuing to ensure the inflow of investment, boosting cyber connectivity and accelerating human resources development.

This is not to say that Jokowi’s choices of foreign policy and strategy are the best for Indonesia. However, the management of its diplomacy and the implementation of the GMF indicate a coherent view of Jokowi’s outlook: that the vital interest and core values of Indonesia’s policies are economic. Foreign policy has been more about foreign economic policy.

The dominance of an economic outlook has also been consistent in the way the President filters information and discerns facts as well as trends regarding COVID-19. These include preparing a stimulus and recovery plan for the tourism sector to endure the pandemic as one of the main initial responses. It was also apparent in the way Jokowi designed Indonesia’s policy towards people mobility across regions, and it will arguably determine whether and how the administration will carry on with lockdown strategies in the near future. Malaysia’s decision to ease off the MCO will arguably create a strong learning effect for Jokowi on how to proceed with managing the pandemic especially on economic terms.

With all of this in mind, poor state capacity and tendency to filter problems based on economic measures mean several things for Indonesia’s regional and global position after COVID-19.

First, the immediate agenda would be to ensure the availability and access to medical equipment and infrastructure, as well as the protection of Indonesians abroad. Testing and tracking limit Indonesia’s capacity to deal with COVID-19 as the President is still disappointed that the number of daily tests is far below the target, while national labs suffer from extremely limited kits and human resources to accelerate testing.

Second, as some of Indonesia’s initiatives on multilateral channels have demonstrated, the next main interest for Indonesia is future access to vaccine along with the continuity of international distribution of goods and supplies. Global redistribution of medical goods will be critical to Indonesia. As the current trend of great power competition has indicated, especially over the debate on global health regimes and vaccine development, there may be challenges to Indonesia’s geopolitical outlook.

Throughout 2019, Indonesian diplomacy had been devoted to promote an ASEAN vision of the Indo-Pacific. Indonesia expects to foster a region where the United States and China will remain benevolent in furthering their agenda under several principles such as inclusiveness, openness and transparency. On the issue of public health, with experiences from the SARS outbreak, Indonesia and other ASEAN Member States once played an active role in managing regional powers through various multilateral tracks, such as the ASEAN Plus (through which China, Japan and South Korea were engaged) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) (through which the United States was engaged). Today, the Trump administration shows that an inclusive Indo-Pacific might probably be a wishful thinking as Washington is moving away from its traditional role in providing global and regional public goods. Therefore, Indonesia’s agenda may someday leave the Indo-Pacific as a neglected multilateral agenda at best, especially if Jakarta sees the ASEAN Plus Three platform as a more viable option to deal with the pandemic.

However, this does not mean that Indonesia’s position in managing great power relations will tilt the balance to the East instead. Lessons from SARS show that ASEAN-led institutionalisation of various regional initiatives, such as the establishment of a regional task force and surveillance mechanism, suffered from poor and unevenly-distributed healthcare capacities within countries and across the region.

If the trend persists, bilateral measures will become the more relevant modus operandi. As the Trump administration withdraws financial resources from the World Health Organization (WHO) to other agencies, some unilateral platforms such as USAID Global Health Security (GHS) in Indonesia might become more instrumental. While Jokowi probably seeks to save the tourism, manufacturing, retail and commodity sectors as the next main agenda, bilateral deals with President Trump will be more likely without any references to the regional agenda, such as the one conducted recently to open a new industrial estate in Java. At the same time, Jakarta continues to ensure assistance and cooperation from Asian countries such as China and South Korea in ensuring medical supplies are available for day-to-day healthcare.

Therefore, despite the endemic structural problems at both the national and international levels on public health, it is premature to assume that COVID-19 will become a game changer or a moment of reflexivity. The pandemic should be a reminder that effective and creative leadership is important at every level, especially when it comes to long-term outlooks. The pandemic relates to broader issues of social and ecological problems that demand a strategic reorientation at every level. However, it remains a hard task for Jokowi as it does for the region.

Andrew W Mantong is Researcher in International Relations, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Indonesia

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