Du Wei, Wu Qian, & Li Dan

On April 29, 2022, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Indonesia and met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, during which the two sides reached several agreements and actively expressed their desires for cooperation in various fields. As a major economy in Southeast Asia, the leader of ASEAN, and the rotating presidency of the G20 this year, Indonesia was regarded by Japan as a strategic partner with universal values such as democracy and nomocracy. Therefore, it was not surprising that Kishida designated it as the first destination of this Asia-Europe trip. The two sides made relatively positive progress in their cooperation during this visit. Kishida also specifically thanked Joko Widodo for his “positive response” to lifting Indonesia’s restrictions on Japanese food imports after the Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011. Fumio Kishida also invited Joko Widodo to attend the 2023 summit in Japan, which aims to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Japan-ASEAN summit. Besides, since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, only Singapore has participated in the sanctions against Russia among ASEAN countries. Other ASEAN countries have adopted a cautious attitude and have not chosen sides. Japan has always been at the forefront of sanctions against Russia and wanted to use its status as the only Asian member of the G7 to bridge the differences between ASEAN countries and Western countries on the issue of sanctions against Russia. Therefore, regardless of the actual effectiveness of Kishida’s action, it also allowed its Western allies to see Japan’s efforts and further expanded its influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

During his visit to Indonesia, Kishida focused on three main topics: first, strengthening cooperation in trade, investment, infrastructure, energy, and environment; in addition to strengthening cooperation, the two sides also discussed regional and global issues, especially those related to Ukraine. Finally, the two sides also discussed promoting this region as a peaceful, stable, and prosperous area through Indo-Pacific cooperation. However, Japan and Indonesia still have many obstacles to future development. In particular, the following three issues are difficult to resolve in the short term and add uncertainties to the relationship between Japan and Indonesia.

Firstly, the different attitudes toward the Russia-Ukraine conflict are difficult to reconcile in the short term. Indonesia believes that Russia can act as a counterbalance to other major powers. Hence it is not in Indonesia’s best interest to weaken Russia excessively. Although Indonesia expressed support for Ukraine after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, like most ASEAN countries, Indonesia did not join the sanctions against Russia. More prominently, it did not shut Russia out of the G20 at the West’s request, instead emphasizing the “impartiality of the presidency” and the “unity of the G20” and said it had invited the Russian President Vladimir Putin to the G20 summit in November this year. At the same time, Indonesia also invited Ukraine’s president Zelensky, a non-member of the G20, to participate in the G20 meeting. Although there are reasons for considering U.S. pressure, there is no denying Indonesia intends to ensure the G20 summit becomes a tool for reaching consensus and guaranteeing the stability of its multilateral diplomatic model.

Secondly, there are differences between the two sides in their claims of the dominance of the Indo-Pacific order. In Japan’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” Indonesia and other ASEAN countries play an instrumental role in containing China but cannot become the dominant players in the region. The core of the future “Indo-Pacific” order is still the Japan-U.S. alliance, and the operation of this order is also ensured through the U.S.-Japan-Australia mechanism. But the ASEAN countries, represented by Indonesia, are not willing to be just a pawn in the game of great powers, so they are also actively fighting for the dominance of the future regional order. In particular, “ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific,” promoted by the Joko government, emphasized the fundamental role of the existing mechanism and strongly advocated the part of the East Asia Summit (EAS). The “10+8” model is considered to be ASEAN-led and highly representative, with major extra-territorial countries, thus highlighting ASEAN’s unity and centrality.

Last but not least, both sides take the national interests into the primary consideration for cooperation. Although Japan and Indonesia are interested in strengthening cooperation, some structural divergences remain. Firstly, since President Joko Widodo came to power, Indonesia has been dealing with international relations issues with national interest-oriented governance, implementing pragmatic diplomacy, and reinterpreting Indonesia’s long-held “independent” diplomatic approach to focus on developing diplomatic relations that are “good for Indonesia.” This is why the Joko administration has been conducting balanced diplomacy with China, Japan, the United States, Russia, and other major powers since the beginning of its administration, which trying to avoid “taking sides” among the major powers but also trying to place multifaceted bets among them, as evidenced by Indonesia’s attitude toward Russia this time. Secondly, for historical reasons, Indonesia’s foreign policy has a nationalistic dimension that cannot be ignored. It is always cautious and even guarded in cooperating with foreign powers such as Japan.

All in all, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to Indonesia was mainly to show Japan’s friendly gesture toward Indonesia which, more to release a signal to cooperate with the U.S. “Indo-Pacific Strategy” and unite with Indonesia to resist Russia and contain China, whether there will be concrete follow-up actions and gains remains doubtful at this stage. After all, as a medium power in the Asia-Pacific region, Indonesia has always attached importance to implementing its “liberal and active” foreign policy. As early as 2014, President Joko formally proposed a strategic concept of a “global maritime pivot,” which was also Indonesia’s non-aligned and active foreign policy. This was an important manifestation of Indonesia’s non-aligned and active foreign policy, which advocated the principles of equality, mutual respect, and balance among major powers. Therefore, it shows that Indonesia can still take the initiative to engage in international and regional affairs. If Japan wants to play some “tricks” in its diplomacy with Indonesia, it is wishful thinking.


*Du Wei is a scholar at Yunnan University; Wu Qian and Li Dan are scholars at Yunnan University of Finance and Economics.

**The Diplomatic Insight does not take any position on issues. The views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Diplomatic Insight and its staff

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