Leveraging on Soft Power in Indonesia’s Vaccine Diplomacy


Indonesia’s relatively successful vaccine diplomacy to secure supplies for its citizens signifies the country’s growing soft power at the international stage. Through its various engagements in international forums, the country has managed to publicly shape its own perception as a champion of the developing world by speaking against what it sees as inequality between developed and developing countries. Lacking in hard power in comparison to other more affluent regional peers, Indonesia has shown that it can still punch above its weight in achieving its foreign policy objectives. Through an effective use of its soft power and public diplomacy, Indonesia’s diplomatic success in its vaccination drive demonstrates that hard power is not the only defining factor of how successful a country is in its diplomatic initiatives.

Engagement as the Cornerstone of Indonesia’s Diplomatic Success

Indonesia’s diplomatic success can be interpreted as signs of the country’s growing “soft power.” According to prominent international relations theorist Joseph Nye, soft power is defined as the ability to affect other countries to obtain outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment. In 2019, Indonesia was listed as one of top 10 countries in Asia with significant soft power influence. This was measured based on components including enterprise, engagement, culture, digital, education and government institutions. For its vaccine diplomacy, Indonesia’s relative success can be attributed to its power of engagement through its pursuit of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.

On the bilateral front, Indonesia has channels to speak out against what it perceives as “vaccine nationalism” by developed countries. One example of such activism by Indonesia was evident with Indonesian Foreign Minister’s, Retno Marsudi, efforts as cochair of the Gavi COVID-19 Vaccines Global Advanced Commitment (COVAX AMC) Engagement Group. During Indonesia’s cochairing along with its counterpart, the Ethiopian Health Minister and the Canadian Minister for International Development, the three countries spearheaded diplomatic engagements to ensure that all countries receive adequate allocation of vaccines regardless of their existing economic standing. The meeting was attended by Heads of State, State Officials, international Organizations and major pharmaceutical companies aiming to raise funds to meet global vaccine needs.  This stance was later endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO) during a Director General’s press briefing on September 2020. Currently Indonesia, Canada and Ethiopia are supporting global vaccination via vaccine diplomacy, coordinated by WHO. The COVAX scheme can be seen as one of Indonesia’s diplomatic successes which other developing countries directly benefited from.

Bilaterally, Indonesia has engaged with China to acquire 50 million doses of Sinovac, making the country the first to use the vaccine with the first dose administered to President Joko Widodo back in January 2021. Indonesia’s diplomatic efforts has made it among the first few countries in Asia to get a head start on vaccinating its population. Other bilateral diplomacy-driven initiatives to secure vaccines has yielded positive results. Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin shared that Indonesia has secured enough buy-ins from its partners to provide a steady supply of COVID-19 vaccines. Apart from Sinovac, Indonesia has secured orders for several vaccines such as such as Sinovac, Pfizer & BioNTech, Moderna, Sinopharm, AstraZeneca with additional plans to acquire Sputnik V.

Noteworthily, Indonesia’s success in its vaccine diplomacy is not attributed to the country’s “hard power” or a country’s ability to compel other countries to action through coercion, economic influence and military. In the areas of engagement, Indonesia’s active role in various multilateral organizations such as its 2019-2020 non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council, its de-facto leadership role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), its membership in G-20 and its influential role in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have pushed the country back into prominence after being previously perceived as an “invisible nation” by most international media outlets. As Indonesia grows in credibility in the areas of economic growth, governance, secular democracy and its contribution to peace and stability, it is expected that the country will continue to gain influence at the global stage.

Understanding Indonesia’s Soft Power in Diplomacy
There are two underlying themes on how Indonesia has managed to position itself as a voice of the developing world. The first is the country’s relative stability after long periods of political turmoil and its role in advocating the issues of developing countries throughout its history. Being a role model for developing countries, Indonesia is among the few that has managed to democratically transition from an authoritarian regime under Suharto from 1967-1968 to an electoral democracy. It also molded itself as a Muslim majority secular democracy and has managed to achieve great strides in the alleviation of poverty and maintaining consistent economic growth. And in 2020, Indonesia was upgraded from a lower middle-income country to an upper middle-income country by the World Bank.

Secondly, Indonesia’s inherent influence on developing countries due to its historical precedent in protecting its national interest by driving initiatives with other like-minded developing countries. In its approach to diplomacy, the country has always managed to successfully position itself as a champion for developing countries. The “bebas aktif” or free and active doctrine, which is at the core of Indonesia’s foreign policy, sets the tone of its engagement at the international stage. The policy itself was the result of the Cold War from 1947-1991 which saw clandestine warfare between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; both vying for global influence. For its survival, the fledgling Indonesia under Indonesia’s first president Sukarno deemed it necessary to remain strategically neutral to prevent Indonesia from being a puppet state of other bigger global powers. The free and active foreign policy later translated into Indonesia being the brainchild of the Asia-Africa Conference in 1955 and the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. The origin of the free and active foreign policy at first served the purpose of ensuring the country’s independence from external influence, but in doing so, it later evolved into greater activism at the world stage for Indonesia. One thing to note is that there has been a consistent adherence to this foreign policy doctrine, and as a result the country has been steadily building up its reputation as an advocate or the voice of the developing world.

Framing an Effective Public Diplomacy Campaign

On Indonesia’s diplomatic success in securing vaccine for itself through diplomacy, it can be argued that Indonesia has effectively leveraged effectively on its soft power. This also shows that although the country might be behind in terms of hard power compared to its developed regional peers, Indonesia can still influence global affairs by carefully framing its image. Indonesia has stepped up its public diplomacy campaign to frame it as a nation advocating for greater equality and a model of national resilience to other countries. This is especially true vis a vis the current military coup in Myanmar.

However, one down side of greater exposure in the international stage is that it will undoubtedly raise greater scrutiny to its domestic affairs. By making itself as a model of the developing world, Indonesia will undoubtedly be lambasted for its mishandlings of domestic affairs such as human right abuses, mistreatment of minorities and use of force against what it deems as “undesirable elements in the country”, among others. Indonesia should not be complacent of its diplomatic success. With greater international scrutiny comes the burden of setting the right example as it will affect the country’s credibility at the global stage.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Dwinda Adrianto currently holds a Masters degree in Asian Studies with various experience working with various consultancies and International Organizations. His research interest is focused on Indonesia investment climate, Southeast Asian Affairs and public policy.

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