Victoria University of Wellington’s 2018 Sir Howard Kippenberger Visiting Chair in Strategic Studies provides a guide to the foreign policy of New Zealand’s closest Southeast Asia neighbour.

If you want to understand Indonesia, Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar’s name is as good a place as any to start.

Anwar was Victoria University of Wellington’s 2018 Sir Howard Kippenberger Visiting Chair in Strategic Studies, hosted by the University’s Centre for Strategic Studies.

In the keynote public lecture each Chair gives during their visit, Anwar told an audience of ambassadors, high commissioners and other members of the international and New Zealand diplomatic community: “I’m very fond of telling everyone, ‘Look at my name – Dewi Fortuna Anwar. That is Indonesia. Dewi is from our Hindu background, Fortuna is from the Western influence and Anwar is from the Islamic influence.”

Indonesia has “this openness to different influences”, said Anwar. “But at the same time this is precisely why it’s such a challenge to form a national identity, because the different influences also pull us in different directions.”

There are many reasons for New Zealanders to want – and need – to understand Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, an increasingly important actor in global politics, our closest neighbour in Southeast Asia and, as Southeast Asia’s largest economy, a significant and growing trading partner.

Indonesia is also the world’s third-largest democracy, although one measure of New Zealanders’ lack of understanding about the country might be that the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s 2017 survey of New Zealanders’ perceptions of Asia and its peoples revealed only 16 percent knew Indonesia is a democracy at all.

Anwar has written widely on the country’s democratisation since President Suharto’s autocratic rule of more than 30 years ended in 1998, and on the country’s foreign policy and a range of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) political security issues.

She is a research professor in the Centre for Political Studies at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, and between 2010 and 2017 served as a senior adviser to two successive Indonesian Vice-Presidents. From 1998 to 1999, she was an Assistant Minister of State Secretariat for Foreign Affairs.

Anwar’s Victoria University of Wellington visit coincided with the 60th anniversary of formal New Zealand–Indonesia bilateral relations and her lecture was on ‘Indonesia and the Indo-Pacific Order’.

Because Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s biggest country, it is often seen as a natural leader, said Anwar, but for the same reason, regardless of what it does, it is also subject to suspicion.

“Especially given the fact Indonesia’s past behaviour has not always been exemplary.”

Indonesia’s founding foreign policy doctrine, enunciated by Vice-President Mohammad Hatta three years after the country declared independence from the Dutch in 1945, was one of being “independent and active” and “rowing between two reefs” – i.e. not being bound to either of the major global powers of the time, the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the mid-2000s, under then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, that doctrine was updated to take account of changed geo-politics, becoming one of “navigating in turbulent oceans”, with the country having “a million friends and zero enemies”, according to Yudhoyono.

This marked Indonesia’s reassertion of itself as “independent and active” after Suharto, with the country now promoted as somewhere Islam, democracy and modernity walk hand in hand, and with an emphasis on a more outward-looking ASEAN that values democracy and human rights. Indonesia’s increasing push for an Indo-Pacific outlook also started to emerge.

Under current President Joko Widodo, in power since 2014, economic and infrastructure development through key bilateral relations such as those with New Zealand have been stressed, as has Indonesia as a maritime power, said Anwar.

Indonesia’s commitment to ASEAN and ASEAN-centric regional mechanisms remains a foreign policy cornerstone, with the country pressing ASEAN to take ownership of the Indo-Pacific concept, she said.

“Despite major changes in Indonesia’s foreign policy over the decades, its strategy for managing relations with the major powers in a highly fluid Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific regional environment demonstrates a consistency with its traditional foreign policy doctrine but adapted to suit the changing dynamics brought about by the emergence of multiple power centres with no clear or ideological divides,” said Anwar.

The strategy includes:

– Engaging widely with all key regional powers without being seen as too close to one

– Developing regional resilience and autonomous regional order through ASEAN

– Ensuring Southeast Asian and Indo-Pacific regionalism is inclusive by bringing competing major powers into any wider regional architecture to prevent one power dominating.

It is important, said Anwar, “to inculcate understanding that there are many, many players now in the market”.

Indonesia’s foreign policy, she said, “has always been that we prepare for the worst and hope for the best and work to both”.

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