Activists hold a demonstration in front of the Chinese embassy in Jakarta on January 14, 2022, calling for a boycott of the winter Olympics in Beijing over China's atrocities against the Uygurs and violation of territorial sovereignty in the Natuna waters. (Photo: Dasril Roszandi / AFP)

Worldview of the Nusantara: Indonesians More Nuanced on Foreign Policy Concerns

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While domestic concerns remain topmost on Indonesians’ minds and will still drive diplomacy, results from a survey in July 2022 hint at a more complex worldview.

While Indonesian citizens do not make international relations policy, Jakarta and KEMLU’s (Kementerian Luar Negeri, the foreign ministry) diplomats might note their compatriots’ shifting perspectives on geopolitics. Compared to years prior, 2022 has certainly been one where geopolitics rudely intruded into most Indonesians’ lives through the continued ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic affecting their health and livelihoods, and spiralling costs of living due mainly to Russia’s protracted war in Ukraine.

From 21-28 July 2022, the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute commissioned Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) to conduct a nationwide survey covering various issues, including international relations. It collected 1,620 responses for this Indonesia National Survey Project (INSP2022). A full report on the INSP2022 will be published in December 2022.

While the scope of the survey was limited and the usual caveats regarding accuracy and sampling apply, some of its key findings raise interesting questions about Joko Widodo’s legacy as president on the foreign policy front, as well as whether Jakarta’s official foreign policy narrative and actions hold any traction with the average Indonesian.

The overall takeaway, if we compare the results of the 2017 INSP survey with those from INSP2022, is that noticeably fewer Indonesians view countries like Japan, the U.S., Singapore, China, Australia, and even Malaysia as being “somewhat important” or “very important” to Indonesia. The drop is from the high 70s to mid-80s in percentage terms (in 2017) to the low 70s (in 2022).

The INSP2022 shows Indonesians’ high level of respect for Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which is noteworthy. Both countries were not included in the 2017 survey, so this was a strong debut. Saudi Arabia topped the list (at 47 per cent) when respondents were asked whether a country was “very important” to Indonesia. Turkey was joint fourth with China and Singapore, with 25 per cent each. Japan took second place in the rankings, with 29 per cent. The U.S and Malaysia were in joint third with 26 per cent each. The largest number of respondents also felt that bilateral economic ties with Saudi Arabia would benefit Indonesia.

Responses to another question, “Which country (from a list of 13 arranged alphabetically) do you admire most?”, suggest that Indonesians might be more collectively concerned about their place in or more attuned to the wider Muslim world. For the most positive response “admire a lot”, the top three scorers were Saudi Arabia (with 43 per cent of respondents indicating this), Turkey (24 per cent), and Malaysia (21 per cent).

Despite the widespread opprobrium that Russia has received for its invasion of Ukraine, the country was on par with Malaysia, with 21 per cent of respondents “admiring” Russia “a lot”. This could be explained by the type of media and social media that young Indonesians especially are consuming on the Russia-Ukraine war and adjacent issues. This finding chimes with previous reporting on Indonesians’ sympathy for the Russian position in Ukraine, which can be attributed to factors including the successful reach of Russian propaganda and soft power in Indonesia, but also the continued salience of anti-Western or anti-American sentiments.

After joint fourth-placed Singapore and Japan (each with 20 per cent of respondents admiring these countries “a lot”), the EU, South Korea, Australia, China, India, and Vietnam scored in the teens. For 12 of the 13 choices offered, more than half of respondents indicated they “somewhat admire” all of these countries.

On the question “Should Indonesia be more involved in international affairs?”, more than a third of respondents replied “No” when specifically asked on Palestine, the Uighurs in Xinjiang, the Rohingya in Myanmar, and Ukraine (see Figure 1). Yet around two-thirds or more wanted Jakarta to be “more involved” in sending humanitarian aid to Palestine, the Rohingya, the Uighurs, and surprisingly, given the earlier mentioned positive views of Russia, also to those affected by the war in Ukraine.

Figure 1. International Affairs Involvement

(Data: INSP2022, July 2022; figures by author)

These findings possibly indicate that many Indonesians closely sympathise and identify with the plight of Muslim refugees or marginalised communities worldwide, regardless of their oppressors. They might also want Jakarta to draw closer to its Muslim counterparts in other regions on certain foreign policy issues concerning the global Muslim community or ummah. This trend has arguably picked up since 2001 after the September 2001 attacks on the U.S. and the subsequent conflicts and counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

The INSP2022 results somewhat correspond with selected findings from a broader Lowy Institute (LI) survey conducted in December 2021 with 3,000 respondents. In the words of one analyst, the LI survey found “distinct ambivalence” about “growing strategic competition” and a growing distrust of China (with almost half of the respondents agreeing that China wanted to “dominate” Asia). But the INSP2022 results perhaps reflect a more nuanced Indonesian view of China.

While the INSP2022 respondents recognise the potential economic benefits of working with China and welcome Chinese investments, it is clear that China’s ineluctable rise has made Indonesians more wary about its potential negative impact on Sino-Indonesian ties and Indonesia’s security.

Nearly 35 per cent of respondents said that Jakarta’s relations with Beijing are “somewhat good” or “very good”. China is also ranked third among countries that respondents deemed as providing the most benefits to Indonesia.

On the other hand, a quarter of respondents in the INSP2022 felt that China’s rise would negatively impact other countries including Indonesia, while just 20 per cent felt its impact would be positive, with almost a third staying neutral and a quarter indicating “don’t know”.

When asked about their opinion on an unspecified “Natuna Sea incident/ dispute/ disagreement”, more than 47 per cent chose “serious” (20.1 per cent) or “alarming” (27.3 per cent) as their answer (see Figure 2). The latter group believed that China was encroaching on Indonesia’s maritime territory. A third of the respondents had never heard of such disputes while 16.4 per cent did not have a response, which could indicate a lack of attention to foreign policy matters in general or indifference to the Natuna Sea dispute.


Figure 2. Natuna Sea Dispute

(Data: INSP2022, July 2022; figures by author)

Author’s note: LSI’s question asked respondents’ opinions on an unspecified “incident, dispute or disagreement between China and Indonesia in the Natuna Sea” from “a few years ago”. Five choices were recorded: 27.3% chose “These disputes are alarming, China is encroaching upon Indonesia”; “These disputes are serious, but mainly caused by illegal fishing. The Chinese government is not responsible.” (20.1%); “This is just a minor matter; the Indonesian government should not make a big issue (out of it)” (4.0%); and the figure above collapses the last two categories: “Don’t Know” or no answer recorded (16.4%) and “Never heard of this issue” (32.1%).

The negative sentiment towards China on the Natuna Sea issue also showed up in respondents’ attitudes towards China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 42 per cent either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that the BRI creates a “debt trap” for recipient countries. Taken with others such as the 2021 LI survey, the INSP2022 evinces some wariness among Indonesians towards China yet reveals a growing sophistication in their attitudes towards Asia’s re-emerging great power.

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Julia Lau is Senior Fellow and Co-Coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme, and Editor, Fulcrum at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.