Explaining Indonesia’s Limited Defence Diplomacy in the South Pacific: The Analysis of Motivation and Opportunity

In the vast expanse of the South Pacific region, where geopolitical tensions simmer and great power competition stirs, Indonesia finds itself at a pivotal crossroads, requiring an elegant touch of defence diplomacy to safeguard its national interests and promote regional stability. Although located not far from the easternmost part of Indonesia, the South Pacific region has only recently been considered Indonesia’s immediate region. Not until the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) administration did Indonesia start strengthening its relations with its South Pacific neighbours. During that period, SBY strategically employed the concepts of ‘connectivity’ and ‘identity’ as he implemented many initiatives to enhance bilateral and multilateral ties with nations within the South Pacific region.[1] The current administration under Joko Widodo (Jokowi) continues the SBY policy by engaging more in more concrete measures, such as the Pacific Elevation and Indonesia AID. However, Indonesia’s policy in the region lacks defence engagement as it focuses on political, economic, and cultural domains.

Why does Indonesia lack defence diplomacy in the South Pacific region? This research paper analyses why Indonesia has had minimal defence engagement in the South Pacific despite its importance. There are at least two significant reasons why Indonesia should take this region more seriously. Firstly, the inclusion of West Papua into Indonesia has been a longstanding issue of concern for the South Pacific community. While it has been a part of Indonesia since 1945, some argue that the legitimate right of West Papuans to exercise their self-determination has been consistently ignored.[2] The United Nations has been accused of not fulfilling its mandate and focusing mainly on ensuring that the territory remains Indonesia’s, with little controversy.[3] Some Pacific countries and the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) support the spirit of self-determination, while others believe it will always be a long-term challenge for Indonesia.[4][5]

Secondly, the strategic value of the South Pacific region has made the area more important for Indonesia. As tensions between the United States (US) and China increase, both great powers seek influence in the region. Fraenkel and Smith argue that the recent defence cooperation agreement between China and the Solomon Islands could create the next Cuban missile crisis.[6] On the other hand, the US and Papua New Guinea recently concluded their defence agreement, allowing the US more access to their military assets to operate in the region.[7] Indonesia should be concerned that this situation could destabilise the region; thus, it must strengthen its foreign policy towards the region by incorporating a more robust defence diplomacy.

Defence diplomacy is a tool in foreign policy used to achieve national objectives. It was coined after the Cold War to address the necessity of the greater role of the military in the ‘demilitarised’ global setting.[8] The term is commonly used in international politics discussions, but there is no universal agreement on its definition. One helpful definition comes from the British Ministry of Defence, which defines it as a peaceful use of military force to prevent hostilities by building and maintaining trust.[9] It promotes peacekeeping efforts, good governance, and human rights among allies, partners, and even potential rivals.[10] Defence diplomacy incorporates broader areas than military diplomacy to achieve the ‘government’s foreign relations objectives’.[11] In Indonesia, defence diplomacy involves the military (TNI) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Indonesia follows the principle of being independent and active in its defence diplomacy by not being aligned in a particular bloc and actively promoting peace under the United Nations (UN) umbrella. According to Evan Laksmana, the country’s approach includes confidence-building measures (CBM), improving defence capabilities, and developing the defence industry.[12] Indonesia’s defence diplomacy also provides defence assistance, as seen in participation in numerous peacekeeping operations under the UN and humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) efforts. The country’s defence diplomacy, however, focuses on multilateralism through the ASEAN framework and bilateral engagements, mainly with the United States and Australia.[13] Indonesia’s involvement in defence matters in the South Pacific region is minimal, if not non-existent. The literature on Indonesia’s defence diplomacy lacks a discussion of its activities in the South Pacific region, indicating limited defence cooperation.

This research aims to contribute to the academic literature on Indonesia’s foreign engagement in the South Pacific region by examining Indonesia’s defence diplomacy. To analyse why Indonesia’s defence diplomacy in the area has been underinvested over the last five decades, this study utilises primary and secondary sources ranging from unclassified official documents, books, transcripts, and articles from academic journals and online. The research then qualitatively identifies patterns and themes to address the main research question. This study, however, has limitations on the actual data as it will not use classified data from the MoD and TNI. The data on Indonesia’s defence diplomacy will be retrieved from open source, which may be outdated. Despite the lack of up-to-date data, this research capstone will still provide relevant context to understand the issue.

This paper includes an introduction that provides a literature review of the significant value of the South Pacific region to Indonesia and describes a theoretical context of defence diplomacy. The introduction is followed by a discussion of why Indonesia has had limited defence diplomacy in the South Pacific region. The research identifies two primary factors that contribute to this limited engagement. Firstly, Indonesia’s foreign policy doctrine prioritises national interests, specifically those related to the economy, survival, and national branding. As such, the South Pacific region does not present significant incentives for Indonesia to engage heavily. Secondly, the region, comprising several small island nations, provides limited space for Indonesian defence engagement. To elaborate on the finding, the paper will first discuss the use of Indonesia’s foreign policy to secure its national interest and examine Indonesia’s perspective on the South Pacific region from three lenses: economic relevance, threat perception, and the prospect for national branding. Finally, the paper will use the four approaches of Indonesia’s defence diplomacy as a framework to analyse its engagement in the region.

Indonesia’s Foreign Policy and the Perspective on the South Pacific Region.

Indonesia’s foreign policy has a strong root in Mohammad Hatta’s thought. The first vice president expressed his foreign policy ‘guidelines’ in his famous speech’ Rowing between Two Reefs’. arguing that Indonesia’s international policies should be determined by its national interests and position on the global order.[14] For Hatta, Indonesia’s national interests encompass territorial integrity and economic security.[15] Moreover, according to him, Indonesia is a great nation; thus, it must have strong self-confidence and become a ‘subject’ in the international system.[16] These three keywords—economy, security, and recognition—then become the basis of Indonesia’s foreign policy. Defence diplomacy is part of a country’s foreign policy; therefore, it is essential to delve into Indonesia’s foreign policy, which prioritises ASEAN and major powers, before analysing how Indonesia behaves in the South Pacific region. The country’s behaviour can be viewed through three lenses, which are used to pursue its national interests.

The Three Lenses: Economy, Survival, and National Branding.

Most of Indonesia’s presidents who experienced a relatively stable administration have prioritised economic development over other matters. This is a leader’s most rational choice, as people’s welfare will determine legitimacy, especially in democratic countries. Even Suharto’s longstanding authoritarian regime collapsed after facing massive riots during the 1998 economic crisis.[17] Suharto started to rule under poor economic conditions resulting from the political manoeuvres of the previous president. One of Suharto’s priorities was to normalise inflation, which had reached 1,500 per cent, and relieve half of the population from poverty.[18] It is unsurprising that, during Suharto’s reign, Indonesian foreign policy focused on advancing economic development. In 1967, he took part in the initiative to create ASEAN, primarily promoting economic cooperation among its members. He believed that ASEAN could be a comprehensive solution for achieving a peaceful region and economic growth. Indonesia also built closer economic relationships with the US and other Western powers. For instance, Indonesia relied upon its financing to the Inter-Governmental Group on Indonesia (IGGI), a group of 16 Western donor countries and multinational institutions and enjoyed USAID’s assistance. Under the Suharto administration, Indonesia had transformed from a nearly bankrupt nation to become one of the potential Asian tigers.

The successive presidencies have continued this path by seeking economic opportunities in more diverse directions. Presidents SBY and Jokowi use ASEAN as a vehicle to achieve its economic goals. SBY expanded ASEAN’s role beyond Southeast Asia by engaging regional powers through strategic cooperation, leading to the creation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2011, which was signed in 2020.[19] Jokowi aims to bring investment into ASEAN by increasing economic cooperation and removing trade barriers.[20] Bilaterally, both presidents maintained good economic relations with the US, as reflected in some agreements, like the US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Outside of the US, Jokowi has also taken a closer approach to other major powers like China and Japan to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). Under both presidents, Indonesia’s FDI reached US$ 292.5 billion, more than nine-fold during the entire period of the New Order.[21] Indonesia’s leaders have made economic development their top priority, which has greatly influenced its foreign policy.

As a nation with a strategic position in Southeast Asia, Indonesia recognises the importance of managing potential risks that may arise in its interactions with neighbouring countries and other nations with vested interests in the region. Assessing and mitigating these risks is vital to ensure the country’s survival. Every leader must then maintain Indonesia’s national resilience from internal and external threats. From Indonesia’s perspective, the concept of national resilience is ‘a holistic security doctrine in response to existing political and economic chaos in the country’ and is inward-looking in nature.[22] Indonesia’s colonial experience strongly influences this way of thinking; thus, Indonesia is always worried about being threatened by external powers. It is unsurprising to know that the US and Australia topped Indonesia’s defence diplomacy priority—25% activities alone from 2003 to 2008—as both countries left significant memories in Indonesia’s history.[23] A poll by Lowy Institute in 2021 confirms that Indonesians perceive both countries as posing the second and third biggest threats to its security, respectively.[24]

Indonesia’s close relationship with the US, Australia, and China may stem from suspicion, leading to intensified cooperation. As a developing and Muslim country, Indonesia’s common position on the global stage is anti-colonial, which is often translated into anti-Western. Indonesia always sees the US as the potential coloniser, if not by force, then through its liberal values. According to Kiki Syahnakri, a retired army general, the US is also seen as bearing responsibility for every regime fall in Indonesia and will continue to be seen responsible in the future.[25] Indonesia’s relations with Australia are even more complex despite being neighbours. Indonesia will never forget Australia’s intervention during the East Timor crisis. Indonesia saw Australia as too sympathetic to West Papuan pro-independence group and blamed it for the East Timor referendum.[26] Indonesia is also deepening its relations with China diplomatically and, more importantly, in the economy. Most Indonesians, by far, see China as the greatest potential threat due to cultural reasons and its assertiveness in the South China Sea. The three countries have now become the most frequent for Indonesia to engage diplomatically.

In the political arena, Indonesia tries to be an important player using its distinct foreign policy signature: Independent and Active. Suharto pursued this ambition by keeping the political stance of non-alignment. He actively embraced a foreign policy to stabilise the region and improve Indonesia’s image after the Confrontation era.[27] Suharto recognised that for Indonesia to thrive, it was crucial to maintain stability domestically and regionally. He was busy establishing Indonesia’s status as a regional leader, mainly when he brokered Cambodia’s peace process in the 1970s. The conflict was seen as a by-product of strategic rivalry between the Soviets and China.[28] Outside Southeast Asia, Suharto advanced Indonesia’s global role by being the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) chairman. NAM is a multinational grouping established at the end of the Korean War as a counterbalance between Western and Eastern blocs. It was the continuation of the 1955 Bandung Conference when Sukarno led the other 28 leaders to voice the spirit of anti-colonialism. By playing an active role in NAM, Indonesia seeks opportunities to achieve both economic and strategic goals.

Indonesia’s global role increased in the era of strategic uncertainty caused by the growing Sino-American competition and Russia’s assertiveness. The need to promote Indonesia’s identity as a significant middle power is even higher, considering Indonesia’s potential as the largest Muslim country, the fourth largest democracy, and a member of G20. This time, Indonesia often uses the opportunity as ASEAN and G20 chair to participate in global affairs actively. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia leads ASEAN countries in managing their relationship with China, especially in the South China Sea issue. Indonesia’s non-claimant status allows for a neutral role, dragging China into regional affairs. During its chairmanship in 2003, Indonesia successfully made China the first country from the external region to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). India followed suit later, and ASEAN has since become more open to external engagements with the establishment of the East Asian Summit (EAS) and ADMM-Plus, and by extending the membership of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the signatories of TAC, including the US in 2009. Globally, Indonesia took the initiative to mediate Russia and Ukraine when Jokowi, the G20 Chair, met both leaders in July 2022. During the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, Indonesian defence minister Prabowo followed up the peace effort when he proposed a peace plan for the ongoing war.[29] Shangri-La Dialogue is an annual security conference held by Singapore, attended by 29 nations, including China, Russia, and the US. Indonesia’s efforts in mediating global conflicts continue to demonstrate its commitment to promoting stability and cooperation on the world stage. Its image as a middle power is strengthened by the efforts to engage major powers in global issues.

How Indonesia Sees the South Pacific Region

While Indonesia’s foreign policy focuses on ASEAN and major powers in the pursuit of its national interests in economy, sovereignty, and national branding, Indonesia has less interest when it comes to engaging South Pacific countries. Indonesia’s limited involvement in the South Pacific region can be attributed to a lack of economic incentives, lower threat perception, and lesser strategic value for its national branding. For Indonesia, the island states in the Pacific provide limited economic opportunity compared to other regions. Indonesia’s total two-way trade with countries in the South Pacific region is worth only US$ 409 million in 2021, accounting for only 3% of the Indonesia-Australia trade in the same year.[30] The size of the South Pacific population, which is only 2.3 million people—the size of West Jakarta inhabitants—might contribute to this limited economic cooperation. Indonesia’s business community may think twice if asked to invest in the South Pacific due to the region’s lack of economic promise and high associated costs.[31] Moreover, the island states’ economy depends on their natural resources, similar to Indonesia. Take Papua New Guinea for example. The biggest country in the region exports commodities such as gold, oil, copper, coffee, fish, and timber, which are abundant in Indonesia. This character makes Indonesia and the South Pacific economies compete rather than complement each other. Economic cooperation in the South Pacific region will be hard to contribute to Indonesia’s US$ 1.38 trillion GDP significantly.

In terms of security, the biggest concern for Indonesia to its Pacific friends is the issue concerning West Papua. However, Indonesia did not see South Pacific countries as concerned parties, at least not until recently. Indonesians see Australia as having the potential to benefit from conflict in West Papua. In 2018, an Australian activist group called Juice Media aired a satirical video criticising the Australian government’s stance favouring Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua. An Indonesian netizen later modified and reuploaded the video on YouTube, with concerns raised about the possibility of Australia annexing West Papua, demonstrating the resonance this concept has in the Indonesian population.[32] Before that, in 2006, relations between Jakarta and Canberra deteriorated when the Howard Government accepted 43 West Papuan political asylum seekers in Northern Australia, resulting in the Indonesian ambassador’s withdrawal.[33] Howard’s decision sparked anger within Indonesian society, which was still traumatised by the memory of East Timor. Many Indonesians belief that Australia does not want Indonesia to maintain its territorial claims or grow its economy so tries to create instability in Indonesia.

Indonesia’s relations with Pacific Island countries (PIC) are relatively under control. Jakarta has secured Papua New Guinea’s support for the West Papuan issue since 1977. Both countries even conducted joint patrols to ensure border security.[34] The threat calculation slightly changed in 2016 when Vanuatu brought up the issue of West Papuan self-determination before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).[35] Some Pacific countries also used MSG and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) to raise the issue internationally. What motivated those countries to question Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua suddenly is unclear. Indonesia has countered all the concerns through positive engagements, multilaterally and bilaterally. Indonesia urged UN members to respect each country’s sovereignty and avoid interfering in domestic politics, countering Vanuatu’s argument.[36] Both countries’ relationship seems to be improved, as Vanuatu plans to open an embassy in Indonesia following a high official visit to Jakarta recently. Reflecting on the Vanuatu case, it is evident that the challenge for Indonesian territoriality from the South Pacific region is not as direct as China’s overlapping nine-dashed line within the Indonesian EEZ or the disruption of the global food supply caused by the Ukraine war.

The absence of strategic relevance in the South Pacific region allows less opportunity for Indonesia to actively promote its status as a middle power. The region was long forgotten by great powers post-World War II because it offered limited strategic importance. Its smaller population, limited industrial development, and lack of major global trade routes have contributed to this. However, the region became more interesting when China expanded its influence with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project. Even though China has started to invest in the region since 2006, the visit of Xi Jinping in 2014 advertising the BRI has changed the strategic calculation. Since then, there has been a significant increase in official meetings between Xi Jinping and the Pacific heads of state.[37] The US started to pay the region attention seriously after realising China’s growing influence. The fear caused by the Chinese presence made the US increase its diplomatic presence by opening embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga in 2022 and securing a defence pact with Papua New Guinea. The increasing interest of global powers in the South Pacific region could shift the region’s strategic importance and offer new opportunities for countries like Indonesia to actively participate in shaping regional security and economic dynamics.

Indonesia’s growing attention in the region can be tracked when it launched its Pacific Elevate and established the Indonesian Agency for International Development (Indonesian AID) in 2019 to promote a greater role in the region. The initiative aims to improve Indonesia’s international image through hands-on diplomacy.[38] Nevertheless, scepticism arises as Indonesia is likely to keep the region away from its top diplomatic focus, as reflected in the Indonesian foreign minister’s speech, which mentions the European Union more frequently than the South Pacific, despite the latter being much closer to Indonesia geographically.[39] Indonesia might see less urgency to invest heavily in the region, as the US-China rivalry in the South Pacific region does not pose significant world attention yet, unlike in the Taiwan Strait. Table 1 summarises Indonesia’s foreign policy motivation in the South Pacific region.

Table 1. Indonesia’s foreign policy motivation in the South Pacific region.

The recent increased diplomatic efforts by Indonesia in the region can be explained as a result of Indonesia’s growing motivation, especially over the West Papuan issue. President SBY’s attendance at the second summit of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) in 2014 brought missions to mitigate PIC concerns of West Papua. In the forum, Yudhoyono explained his policy on West Papua and Papua provinces to all PIC leaders to gain support for Indonesia’s national sovereignty.[40] When MSG and some Pacific countries raised the issue of West Papuan before the UNGA, Indonesia strengthened its commitment to the region more concretely through its Pacific Elevate program. Indonesia’s behaviour in the region can be interpreted as an attempt to counter the political threat to its sovereignty from the East. In the past, when all the motivations were low, Indonesia left the South Pacific region as the last priority in its diplomatic efforts, focusing more on other regions that provided more incentives.

Indonesia’s Defence Diplomacy Models and Their Application in the South Pacific Region.

Focusing on four categories, evidence shows the increased use of defence and military to support Indonesia’s foreign policy. Indonesia’s involvement in multilateral defence diplomacy under the ASEAN framework contributed to increased activities, from just five in 1996 to 21 in 2008.[41] Bilaterally, Indonesia conducted 88 defence diplomacy activities in five years spanned from 2003, engaging 32 different countries, which can be categorised into CBMs activities, defence capability enhancement, and defence industrial development.[42] In addition, Indonesia also participates in several military assistance missions. CBMs encompass official visits, dialogues and consultations, personnel exchanges, and military exercises. Enhancing defence capability includes weapons transfers and procurements, while defence diplomacy to develop the defence industry aimed at enhancing local industry through transfer of technology, joint research and development, and joint investment. An example of military assistance is when military forces are deployed for HADR missions or peacekeeping operations in other countries. In the case of Indonesia, strong motives in bilateral relations with a target country are mostly linear with defence engagement frequency.

Indonesia’s strong interests in Australia are manifested in intense defence cooperation. Both countries have established stages for the defence ministers and chiefs of defence forces to meet annually in the 2+2 Meeting and AUSINDO High-Level Committee Meeting since 2012. Indonesia’s first participation in Exercise Talisman Sabre 2023 is a step forward in CBMs. Indonesia benefits some upgrading its military capability when purchasing and receiving grants from Australia. Since 1969, Australia has transferred at least 75 aircraft, 12 helicopters, 6 patrol ships, and 18 Bushmasters.[43] Regarding cooperation to enhance Indonesia’s domestic defence industries, Thales Australia and Indonesia’s PT Pindad collaborated to build the Indonesian Army’s APV Sanca in 2016.[44] Indonesia, even though rare, provided military assistance to Australia. In 2020, TNI deployed 38 Army engineers to fight bushfires in Blue Mountain.[45] These instances illustrate how Indonesia can utilise all four methods of defence diplomacy when working with a stronger partner.

In the South Pacific region, there are less rooms to cooperate. Of four, Indonesia can explore only two areas of defence diplomacy in the South Pacific region: military assistance and CBMs. Among the small number of interactions made in the region is during 2016, when Cyclone Winston hit Fiji, TNI deployed its personnel to assist in HADR efforts. At that time, TNI sent 70 personnel to repair Queen Victoria School in Tailevu.[46] A year later, Indonesia and Fiji signed the Defence Cooperation Agreement to strengthen their defence cooperation.[47] However, Indonesia seems to limit military involvement in the South Pacific HADR efforts. When helping Vanuatu recover from Cyclone Kevin and Judy earlier this year, Indonesia used commercial aircraft to send humanitarian assistance. But when assisting Turkey after an earthquake in February 2023, Indonesia sent an Air Force C-130 to transport humanitarian aid to the affected people. Indonesia’s less cooperation in the region is reflected in the number of defence attaché it has in the region. To facilitate communication between Jakarta and the South Pacific defence community, TNI posts only four defence attachés covering 13 states. PIC’s small military size also drives the small amount of defence cooperation. Papua New Guinea and Fiji each have an army strength of 3,700 troops, with no units larger than battalion size. The size of the Navy and Air Force are even smaller, which further limits the opportunity to conduct joint exercises as one of the practical CBMs. The Indonesian Navy rarely sends its naval ships to visit PIC ports, even though in the 1970s, the Navy had routinely visited some Pacific ports as part of its flag diplomacy during Operation Duta Samudra, similar to today’s Royal Australian Navy’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour. Last year’s KRI Bima Suci’s tour skipped to make port of calls in the South Pacific countries, despite the visits in Darwin, Townsville, and Cairns. KRI Bima Suci is an Indonesian naval training ship that conducts overseas sailing yearly to facilitate Indonesian Navy cadets’ training. While Indonesia does not fully exploit the available space to cooperate in CBMs and military assistance, the defence relations in two other categories are even limited.

The opportunity for cooperation in the defence industry and military capabilities is limited due to the comparative weakness of the states in the region compared to Indonesia. Indonesia tends to have more defence engagement with comparatively stronger states, especially in defence industry development and enhancing military capability categories. For Indonesia, cooperation in the defence industry involves joint development and two-way arms trade. Indonesia’s defence industry is still developing; thus, it needs to cooperate with the established military industry, which mostly comes from developed countries. Take South Korea for example. Jakarta and Seoul are cooperating in producing the KFX/IFX fighter that is planned to be mass-produced in 2026.[48] The South Pacific region has not yet reached the stage of industrial development, thus limiting industrial cooperation with Indonesia. There are two types of economies in the South Pacific: those that rely on commodity exports and those that rely on tourism. Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and Solomon Islands are resource exporters, while Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, and Tonga belong to a tourism-dependent group. The other source of funds is foreign aid, contributing to 4.5 per cent of their GDP.[49] All of them contribute to US$ 10.23 billion of the total Pacific Island countries’ GDP.[50] With those resources, the PIC allocate only a small percentage of their budget for the defence. Papua New Guinea, the most military-capable country outside of Australia and New Zealand in the region, spent only US$ 99.4 million for defence in 2022, which resulted in high reliance on aid and second-hand procurement.[51] Indonesia needs to find a larger market to advertise its defence products.

Regarding military capabilities, Indonesia needs to modernise its armed forces, which the South Pacific countries cannot provide. The small island states are the recipients of Australian patrol boats from two projects: the Pacific Patrol Boat Program and the Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP). Australia’s PMSP is a long-term initiative program worth AUD 2.1 billion aiming to donate 22 Guardian-class patrol craft to 12 PICs.[52] On the other side, Indonesia’s resources are still very limited to donating some new or even unused military equipment to its South Pacific counterparts. Even though Indonesia is a member of G20, its defence budget historically is less than 1% of GDP, and there is no allocation for foreign grants. A closer look at Indonesia’s defence budget structure reveals that 40 per cent of the budget is only for defence personnel paychecks, while the Ministry of Defence can only spend US$ 2.1 billion to buy military equipment, which is very small for the size of the Indonesian Armed Forces.[53] Indonesia is building its military capability by approaching big players in the global defence industry. The recent US Department of Defense and Indonesia Ministry of Defence joint statement signifies deepening relations between Indonesia and the US after Indonesia secured an agreement to purchase 24 of Boeing’s F-15EX fighters.[54] Indonesia’s focus on strengthening its military capability is the primary driver of its defence diplomacy, in which the South Pacific region cannot provide.

The comparative analysis of Indonesia’s defence diplomacy in the two case studies of Australia and the PIC reveals that cooperating with relatively stronger states provides more opportunities to execute the four forms of defence diplomacy. On the other hand, when dealing with less powerful nations like those in the South Pacific region, Indonesia’s ability to shape the region is limited to using CBM and providing military assistance, which are also less than ideal. The rooms to cooperate with both stronger and weaker nations is shown in Table 2. Due to the smaller size of the economies and militaries of PIC, Indonesia does not have opportunities to engage in defence industrial development cooperation and defence capability partnership. Indonesia’s limited presence in the South Pacific region is partly due to its limited opportunities for defence diplomacy in the area.

Table 2. Indonesia’s opportunity in defence diplomacy.


The South Pacific region is one of Indonesia’s close neighbours, but Indonesia seems less interested in the region than proximity would explain. While there is progress in the level of Indonesian engagement towards the region, what underlined Indonesia’s lack of interest in the past is worth digging into. This research finds that motivation and opportunity are crucial in shaping Indonesia’s defence diplomacy, especially in the South Pacific region. Motivation comes from inside Indonesia, while opportunities are related to the Pacific states. Indonesia’s lack of motivation to engage in the region is further compounded by the limited opportunities for defence cooperation.

Indonesian foreign policy follows Hatta’s Independent and Active doctrine. The doctrine itself requires Indonesia’s international engagement to gain economic benefit, ensure national security, and contribute to strategic competition to advance Indonesia’s image internationally. Indonesian defence diplomacy always focuses on the three lenses, which, unfortunately, are less promising in the South Pacific region than in other regions nearby. The region provides less economic benefit for Indonesia than other parts of the world as Indonesia needs to attract inbound FDI from more developed countries and trade with larger markets. The region does not threaten Indonesia’s security directly. Some Pacific countries pioneered by Vanuatu have challenged Indonesia politically over the West Papuan issue, which explains the increased Indonesian initiatives in the region recently. However, rather than mistrusting the Pacific island states, Indonesians perceive Australia as the beneficiary if West Papua separates from Indonesia. Furthermore, the emergence of strategic competition between the US and China in the South Pacific region is not yet under the global spotlight. Indonesia is focusing its diplomatic resources on managing the South China Sea issue, which has direct implications for ASEAN solidity and Indonesia’s EEZ, and has shown interest in bridging Russia and Ukraine, in which the conflict has created global economic turbulence.

Consisting of small island states, the region provides less opportunity to develop meaningful defence diplomacy for Indonesia. Indonesia’s defence diplomacy focuses on four areas: CBM, enhancing defence capabilities, defence industry development, and military assistance. All four categories can be explored in the comparatively stronger states, while the weaker ones allow only CBM and military assistance. Cooperation in the defence industry requires partners with at least mutual industry capacity to collaborate, which cannot be exercised with the South Pacific counterparts. Furthermore, Indonesia is not yet a donor country that could contribute to South Pacific countries’ defence. Vice versa, the South Pacific countries also rely on foreign grants for their military build-up. The limited capacity of the South Pacific countries for defence cooperation resulted in less Indonesia’s defence engagement. However, with the prospect of the region becoming the next hotspot for great power competition, Indonesia needs to shift its attention to the South Pacific region more seriously. Indonesia may optimise opportunities in CBMs and military assistance when engaging with smaller countries. The MoD and TNI could contribute to the broader country’s foreign policy in the region. The Indonesian Navy should consider sending its warships to conduct port visits in some South Pacific ports to deepen relationships like it once did in the 1970s. Indonesian Air Force transportation capability and Indonesian Army engineering expertise could aid future HADR missions in the South Pacific region. A comprehensive approach to foreign policy that includes all national instruments, including the defence, will raise the chance to achieve Indonesia’s strategic goals. Moreover, the independence of Bougainville from Papua New Guinea is scheduled for 2027, which is likely used by the West Papuan separatist groups as a momentum to support their struggle. Indonesia’s current diplomatic efforts in the South Pacific region, which focus on politics, economy, and culture, should be strengthened by enhancing defence diplomacy.

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