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HomeGeopolitical CompassSouth & Southeast AsiaThe Rise of the Asian Middle Powers: Indonesia’s Conceptions of International Order

The Rise of the Asian Middle Powers: Indonesia’s Conceptions of International Order

Author: Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar

Affiliation: The University of Queensland, Australia

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs

Date/Place: July 2023/UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 18 


Keywords:  International Order, Liberal, Indonesia, Middle Power


The study of the international order has always been centered on two assumptions: first, the post-Cold War liberal international order (LIO), and second, revisionism by the rise of non-western powers – particularly China – against the liberal international order. As such, the author of this article argues that these two assumptions have led to a neglect of the role of middle powers. Specifically, he focuses on the example of Asian middle powers whose attitudes to the international order do not always share this binary view, nor view the international order as exclusively liberal. 


The author of this study is particularly interested in looking at the case of Indonesia on how it has articulated a distinct vision of international order. For him, Indonesia, as an emerging ‘democratic’ middle power, could provide an important example with regard to Asian middle powers. Hence, the aim of this study is to address two questions: first, the conception of international order from the Indonesian perspective, and second, how has Indonesia engaged with the existing liberal international order over the past two decades? 


The concept of ‘international order’ in this article is agreed to be defined as a pattern of activity, the normative element, and the norms related to the behaviors among members of international society. Thus, the recent literature of international order centered on liberal values has consistently emphasized the concept of “order” and ideas about cooperation and institutionalization. Central to the concept of liberal international order is the assumption of the growing economic and political integration under the wave of globalization. On the other hand, as China emerges as another major power in international system, it has produced its own vision of international order to challenge certain elements of the liberal international order. Again, in both visions, there exists a binary choice between liberalism and revisionism that neglects the role of middle powers. Moreover, these interpretations often give excessive importance to major powers while neglecting the smaller and middle-tier powers beyond Western nations.

In fact, a deeper conceptualization of agency in international politics is needed. Unlike great powers, who usually seek to mold the global order according to their ideological inclinations or domestic concerns, middle powers aim to safeguard their own interests within a chaotic international framework. By expressing different levels of independence, middle powers aim to create a sense of safety when confronted with external dangers and interference by more powerful nations. This enables them to follow their own approaches to realize their national objectives.


Indonesia’s conception of the international order was first formulated in the famous speech by Hatta in 1948. In his speech, Hatta introduced Indonesia’s sacrosanct principle of ‘independent and active’ foreign policy. Moreover, he also outlined Indonesia’s foreign policy as ‘rowing between two reefs’ which means Indonesia has to be carefully navigate between great power conflicts. In doing so, Hatta proposed three basic conceptions of international order: sovereignty, sovereign equality and multilateralism. 


First, sovereignty in this sense means to secure autonomy in international politics and become a subject that can determine its own action. In the early phase of Indonesia’s independence, Hatta believed that autonomy was necessary to obtain international recognition of Indonesia’s independence and to survive in the zone of great power politics between the Soviet Union and the United States. In securing autonomy amidst great power politics, Hatta believed in an ideal international order that maintains sovereignty and non-intervention. Second, sovereign equality means that all sovereign countries should peacefully coexist in an equal manner. In other words, all sovereign countries should obey international law under the same duties and rights regardless of their power. Finally, the third principle is multilateralism. This principle could be achieve through the framework and mechanisms of the UN. For Hatta, the UN was the main instrument for Indonesia’s foreign relations to mediate between great power politics. Through such an instrument, newly independent countries were able to stand without the need to choose between the great powers. After all, one implication of Hatta’s argumentation of international order was that Indonesia had committed to the non-alignment movement and served as a model of middle power in international order. 


Although Indonesia demanded some level of independence, Indonesia nonetheless did not completely isolate itself from the liberal international order that dominated the world after the Cold War. In the author’s analysis, Indonesia has engaged with the liberal international order after 1998 in three ways. First, President Yudhoyono and President Widodo both reacted to the strengthening of the liberal international order following the Cold War. This order is defined by values like transparency, creating rules, and collaborative efforts seen in democratic practices, safeguarding human rights, and global economic integration. Second, both presidents have expressed Indonesia’s unique democratic character by participating in multilateral organizations and activities within the framework of the liberal international order. Thirdly, Both President Yudhoyono and President Widodo are dedicated to the non-alignment principle, yet they also actively involve themselves with key participants of the liberal international order in a positive manner.


Finally, the author concluded that Indonesia’s understanding of global arrangement is based on the core notion that the country needs to uphold its independence in international affairs. Moreover, this study shows that Asian middle powers lean towards a perspective of international order that allows them to ensure their survival and gain essential advantages from the larger players in global politics. 

By: Salman Nugraha, CIGA Research Intern



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