Indonesia’s empowered military: hedging and trust in interstate relations

In the growing literature about how to identify the presence or absence of trust, Keating and Ruzicka have written an extremely persuasive paper on the role of hedging as an indicator of a trusting relationship[1]. Whilst the article provides an extremely important framework for analysing the dimension of hedging as an indicator of trusting relationships, however, it highlights a common problematic occurrence in the analysis of trust; the assumption that states are the primary referent for trust, and that states as a whole are responsible for any hedging behaviour.

This ignores the complexity of the diffusion of power within states, as well as the actors and their motivations behind an act that could be considered a hedge. A country where the military holds a large degree of social power, for example, can problematize such a view of hedging, as actions they undertake that could be interpreted as a hedge may occur as a result of internal power dynamics or may have a domestic purpose, such as justifying their continuing place in society. This can be particularly problematic where defence policy is made in unclear circumstances or without scrutiny, as scholars cannot accurately assess the motivations for these actions.

Indonesia is an example whereby both these issues are prominent[2], as the military (TNI)[3] enjoys a degree of independence from the government, despite the President theoretically having the ultimate authority. This has been seen in the plans for the formation of regional commands (Kogabwilhan) which allow greater autonomy[4]. Initially this role was the result of a consolidatation during the Suharto New Order era. Through the dwifungsi (dual functions) doctrine military involvement in politics was legitimised; the military did not serve the government, but the country and its population, and were guaranteed a proportion of parliamentary seats. Whilst the military’s formal political role has been diminished post-Suharto, and legislation is in place to distance, though not to remove, the TNI from the public sphere, this has not yet seen success[5]. Partly this maintenance was due to fears concerning state disintegration[6], following decentralisation practices limiting central governmental presence in the peripheries and limiting their power of scrutiny. A contradiction in statements between the military and the government would suggest that moves that could be seen as hedging may be viewed differently internally, or, could be strategic language being used to continue legitimising the military’s role. One such example is the recent military posturing over China’s reinterpretation of the nine-dash line, which included the Natuna islands. Personnel within the military highlighted the threat to Indonesia’s unity, arguing “We’ve seen Malaysia and China already get into scuffles over competing claims. Before something happens we should act rather than after something happens”[7], “This is clearly a real threat for Indonesia”[8] and “What China has done affects the Unitary State of Indonesia”[9] which would “have a large impact on the security of the Natuna waters”[10]. China’s “aggressive stance” became a focal point of the disaster relief orientated Komodo exercise[11]. This rhetoric was followed by actions such as the transfer of a battalion to the islands, as well as the readying of fighter aircraft and the reinforcing of the military base, and restructuring of regional joint-military commands[12]. Moeldoko stated “In the future, we expect that the South China Sea will be a flash point. So, a task force, such as the Kogabwilhan, will be very important,”[13]

Governmental personnel, however, were quick to offer what they termed ‘clarifications’. Foreign Minister Natalegawa claimed that Indonesia “Don’t have to follow that script [of an arms build-up becoming an arms race] – we have all prospered because we had stability”[14], and went on to state:

“… there is no territorial dispute between Indonesia and China, especially about the Natunas. In fact, we are cooperating with China in possibly bringing about foreign direct investment plans in the Natunas.” [15]

This was further corroborated by foreign ministry spokesman Michael Tene, who reinforced that Indonesia has no maritime border with China and is not a claimant in the dispute[16]. In cases where governmental members agreed with the need to reinforce the area, they did not focus on China, but linked the location of the Natuna’s to problems with poaching, human trafficking and other non-state problems[17]. Whilst it would be ludicrous to suggest that trust exists across all sectors between Indonesia and China, this is a case whereby the military here could be seen as the main enabler of action that could be considered ashedging but where the government’s rhetoric, whilst not trusting, did not display the level of distrust that the military’s did. Whilst Keating and Ruzicka suggest looking at the reasons behind hedging, there is a need to recognise that actors within the state may have opposing ideas and levels of ‘feelings’ of trust within it, creating an extra dynamic that needs to be considered on a case by case basis.

This means we need to know who is hedging, why, and an awareness of differences that may exist between thoughts and feelings of trust. Such an analysis can be particularly difficult, however, as there is a difficulty in assessing who may be responsible for the action due to a lack of transparency as well as oversight. Indonesia constructs its security and defence policy in an ambiguous way, and thegovernment can have a relatively small amount of influence on the military. Planning policies are released in white books, as laid down in legislation, but the current white book was due two years ago and has not yet surfaced, and the process in which decisions are taken on what are important is not transparent. The Ministry of Defence is overwhelmingly staffed by uniformed personnel. Whilst a legislative commission (Commission 1) exists, which has the power to scrutinise defence policy, it is marred by factors which undermine its effectiveness; including lack of expertise, lack of access to independent experts, and lack of willingness (with members focusing on the ‘more exciting’ foreign policy dimension). These weaknesses have led to a reliance on the TNI, including parliamentarians who are ex-army officers, to assist in the construction and pursuit of defence policy. In the above case the Commission supported the TNI’s moves, but only after the decision was made, based on other justifications, and in any case they have no veto power as well as lacking independence due to the aforementioned factors.

There is a need, therefore, to explore the links between whose trust matters in IR, and the context of hedging due to different social powers in different countries. Ruzicka and Keating’s article provides a good starting point; highlighting some of the problematic factors of other indicators such as co-operation, vulnerability, and the enunciation of trust[18] Their argument that the presence or absence of hedging strategies can be used as an indicator of a trusting, or distrusting, relationship, however, requires further analysis of other factors. Whilst they briefly mention other aspects, namely that the absence or presence alone is not evidence, and that it depends on the social meaning of the hedge and whether it is adequate, they go on to focus on ‘states’ with little contribution to the framework for analysing potentially problematic hedging actions such as this case. We need to consider the wider problem of whose trust matters in International Relations, and what institution or even person should be analysed within the state on a case by case basis. Should there be a focus on leadership? The government? The mass population as a whole? Or specific institutions such as the military?

Scott Edwards is currently undertaking his PhD at the University of Birmingham. His doctoral research seeks to analyse the dynamics of trust within ASEAN, and particularly whether interpersonal links within ASEAN encourages the formation of wider trust and a collective identity.

Image source: Indonesian Navy corvette KRI Sultan Hasanuddin 366 / U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Russell Wolfkiel

[1] Keating, V. C., Ruzicka J., (2014) Trusting Relationships in International Politics: No Need to Hedge, Review of International Studies, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 753-770

[2] Some of this research comes from work I undertook for a study for a prominent NGO concerning defence practices

[3] TNI – Tentera Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National Armed Forces)



[6] Heiduk, F., (2014) State Disintegration and Power Politics in Post-Suharto Indonesia, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 300-315

[7] Bambung Hendratno (Senior Military Official) in

[8] Head of the Maritime Security Coordinating Board (Bakorkamla), Vice Adm. Desi Albert Mamahit in

[9] Air Commodore Fahru Zaini,


[11] Commadore Octavian






[17]   The other source

[18] For another critique and exploration concerning enunciations of trust having a strategic purpose, see Dr. Considine’s recent discussion.

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