Indonesia is trying to balance relations with its top Chinese trade partner and its increasingly important American security one, but this is extremely difficult to do. On the one hand, China’s maritime claims are causing problems with fellow ASEAN members, while the US is trying very hard to create the optics that Indonesia supports its containment of the People’s Republic. Amidst such pressures, joining BRICS could have complicated Jakarta’s already challenging balancing act.
BRICS’ historic expansion that more than doubled its number of official members during the group’s latest summit in South Africa conspicuously omitted Indonesia. Hopes were high among observers that ASEAN’s largest economy would join after a recent statement from the host country’s Foreign Minister. Naledi Pandor claimed on 7 August per pages 7-8 of the official transcript of her remarks from that day that Indonesia officially expressed interest in becoming a BRICS member, though this wasn’t true.
President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) clarified during his statement at the summit several weeks later that “We intend to conduct a thorough study and calculation. We do not want to make any hasty decision. Our relations with the five BRICS member countries are also incredible, especially on economic cooperation. To become a new member of the BRICS group, a country must submit a letter of expression. Until now, we have not submitted that.”
His Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi confirmed a week later that “From the start there was an idea from BRICS to expand membership, all BRICS Foreign Ministers made an approach to Indonesia to invite Indonesia to join the BRICS. Internal studies are still being carried out to weigh the benefits from the political side, from the economic side. To join the BRICS, the country must submit what the ‘expression of interest’ letter conveyed…and until now we Indonesia haven’t conveyed it.”
What’s so interesting about this is that Indonesia had just as much time “to conduct a thorough study and calculation” to “weigh the benefits from the political (and) economic side” as the six countries that joined, yet it still didn’t even submit an “expression of interest” by the time the summit arrived. This strongly suggests that decisionmakers there have some serious concerns about the potential detriments of membership, at least at this point in time.
Indonesia is a major economy with a GDP of $1.32 trillion in 2022 according to the World Bank. To put that figure into context, it’s more than new BRICS members Ethiopia, Iran, and Egypt combined and is only barely bested by adding the UAE to this calculation. Indonesia’s GDP is also larger than Saudi Arabia’s $1.1 trillion last year. This means that it would have been the largest economy to join BRICS. For these reasons, it’s important to discover why it didn’t even officially convey interest in this.
While it can’t be known for sure, the case can compellingly be made that geopolitical pressure played an outsized role in its leadership’s reluctance. Although China is Indonesia’s top trade partner, Jakarta wants to avoid the optics of siding with Beijing on major matters. To be clear, BRICS isn’t Chinese-dominated despite the People’s Republic boasting the group’s largest economy by far, but it’s popularly perceived in the West as a means for that country to accelerate the expansion of its global influence.
Appearing to tilt closer to China than the US in the New Cold War between the Sino–Russo Entente and the US-led West’s Golden Billion over the direction of the global systemic transition could have placed Indonesia in an undesirable position as was explained here. In brief, it’s caught between AUKUS-member Australia and that bloc’s US leader via the latter’s newly expanded military presence in the Philippines. From Jakarta’s perspective, care should therefore be taken to avoid inadvertently provoking them.
Had it agreed to join BRICS last month, then there was no guarantee that those two and whatever “agents of influence” they command within its borders wouldn’t overreact to that in ways that risked destabilizing it, even if only by trying to slow its nearly decade-high 5.31% yearly growth rate. At worst, this could have taken the form of waging Hybrid War on Indonesia, including through support of rebel/insurgent/separatist/terrorist threats by exploiting its internal fault lines that were detailed here.
The other geopolitical factor to consider is how polarizing China is becoming within ASEAN in spite of being each other’s top trade partner. Even before the release of that country’s new map earlier this week reaffirming its contentious nine-dash-line, Indonesia would have foreseen that the optics of tilting closer to China via formal BRICS membership could pose problems for ASEAN unity. It therefore wisely decided to sit out the group’s historic expansion last month in order to adopt a wait-and-see approach.
That was the right thing to do in hindsight since China’s aforementioned map sparked harsh condemnation from Indonesia’s Malaysian and Philippine neighbors. Foreign Minister Marsudi also issued a reminder that all territorial claims must be in accordance with UNCLOS. This alluded to the Indonesian Defense Minister agreeing with his US counterpart last week that China is violating that aspect of international law, though he clarified that “it is a statement, but there was no joint statement.”
In any case, the point is that Indonesia is trying to balance relations with its top Chinese trade partner and its increasingly important American security one, but this is extremely difficult to do. On the one hand, China’s maritime claims are causing problems with fellow ASEAN members, while the US is trying very hard to create the optics that Indonesia supports its containment of the People’s Republic. Amidst such pressures, joining BRICS could have complicated Jakarta’s already challenging balancing act.
This insight reveals that Indonesia’s decision to pass up the opportunity to participate in BRICS’ historic expansion was driven by geopolitical factors and not by economic-financial ones. By adopting a wait-and-see approach, it hopes to retain balanced ties with the New Cold War’s primary Sino-US protagonists while preserving ASEAN unity. These calculations can change by the next BRICS summit since a lot could happen before then, but they’re still expected to remain constant unless something significant occurs.
Source: the author’s blog