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A foreign policy of non-alignment? Indonesia's position during the Cold War

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2014 22 Seiten


Table of content

1. Summary

2. Introduction – The Cold War and Southeast Asia

3. Indonesian political situation between 1945 and 1949

4. The Indonesian Non-Alignment Policy put to test

5. Indonesia between American and Soviet influences (1950-1965)
5.1. The US-Indonesia relations
5.2. The Soviet-Indonesia relations

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

„Indonesia plays no favourites between

the opposed blocs and follow its own path

through the various international problems“

Mohammad Hatta, Ind. Vice-President (1945-56)

1. Summary

During the early years of the Cold War the American as well as the Soviet leaders concentrated their political strategy primarily on the European territory. From the early 1950s onwards, however, their attention shifted towards the Asian and African world. Among the Asian countries, especially the new established Republic of Indonesia was soon considered as a significant strategic control point by both super-powers. Thus, in order to gain this young nation as a political ally, the US as well as the Soviet government continuously offered economic and military support during the next 20 years. Despite all these diplomatic efforts, Indonesia didn’t join any alliance. Following the 1949 proclaimed foreign policy of non-alignment, president Sukarno wanted to uphold a neutral position between the American and Soviet bloc. Until 1965, however, the Indonesian leader played a successful double game with the Cold War opponents through which he tried to benefit as much as possible.

Looking at the period between the end of the Second World War 1945 and Sukarno’s political overthrow in 1965, this paper analyzes two questions. On the one hand, it will focus upon the political attempts coming from the USA and the USSR in order to influence the Indonesian government. On the other hand, by illustrating the latter’s behaviour it will underline that Indonesia took a huge advantage from its triangle position between the American and the Soviet bloc and left the path of foreign neutrality soon after its independence.

2. Introduction – The Cold War and Southeast Asia

“An important role in the destinies of our planet belongs to the Pacific region inhabited by more than half of the world’s population. This region has innumerable mineral and biological resources, it is an important area for international navigation and fishing, it exerts great influence on the formation of the climate on our planet and the state of man’s natural environment. Its natural resources should serve, in full measure, the whole of mankind and the objectives of progress and creation.”[1]

The Cold War, a political confrontation that ultimately resulted from a strong military competition for influence among the Allied winning powers of the Second World War, had its decisive roots in the ideological conflict between two different worldviews: the Wilsonianism and Leninism.[2] The hereby proclaimed idea of dividing the international community in separated blocs, continued until the post-war period[3] and symbolized an important basic principle for all following political events. As many countries were struggling with immense inner state problems after the Second World War, only the United States and the Soviet Union were politically and economically powerful enough to constitute the future settings for the political scene worldwide (Kanet 2006: 332). Whereas the American government concentrated mainly on the European continent, trying to form a powerful alliance there (ibid.: 333), the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev moved the battlefield soon away from Europe towards the Third World countries. By closely following Lenin’s argumentation, Khrushchev saw African and Asian countries, which were at that time fighting for their independences from colonial powers, as “de facto allies of the proletariat and of the first proletarian state, the Soviet Union” (ibid.: 334). In his opinion, those nations revolting against constant external suppression could be a decisive strategic mean to weaken the position of the Soviet’s major opponents – far and foremost the United States.[4]

In order not to loose any power in favour of the Soviet Union, the American government also started to find possible non-European allies. Thereby, especially the Asian region was soon considered as a significant partner within the ongoing confrontation. In the following years, the USA as well as its Soviet enemy tried intensively to set their foot on the Asian ground. Many of the recently established independent nations, however, didn’t want to get involved in the Cold War. Instead, they preferred to follow a path of foreign political neutrality to stabilize the inner state situation and “not to be aligned to one of the two Cold War antagonists” (Mason 2010). One Southeast Asian nation that officially proclaimed this opinion soon after its independence was the Republic of Indonesia. As the Indonesian vice president, Mohammad Hatta, underlined in front of the Central Indonesian National Committee on the 2nd September 1948, the main elements of the future Indonesian foreign policy[5] were political neutrality and a policy of non-alignment. As the country distrusted both political super-powers in the Cold War, it wanted to avoid any involvement in the far-reaching international conflict that might jeopardize the national development. In the face of this clear position, the super-power’s attempt to gain Indonesia as a new ally seems questionable. Nevertheless, there were three factors that gave the country its highly potential status.

Firstly, Indonesia benefitted from its various natural resources that could supply the country with an enormous economic strength. Secondly, having the fifth largest population worldwide, which recently had built a new political system, Indonesia offered the chance for both super-powers to constitute the own ideology there (Derkach 1965: 567). Finally, the territory offered a highly potential military strategic point for the USA and the Soviet Union to gain control over the whole Pacific area (Boden 2008: 123). Besides these general positive arguments that made Indonesia a promising ally for the Cold War opponents, the both countries had also specific interests in this nation.

The Soviet Union needed Indonesia as advantage in the contest with China for ideological and political influence (Derkach 1965: 566). Watching the uprising Communist power in China, the Soviet leadership was afraid of a second possible enemy beside the United States. In order to gain Indonesia’s friendship, the USSR therefore tried from the early years of the country’s independence on to influence the Communist Party there.[6] The American administration, on the other hand, shared the belief that whatever future path the Indonesian nation would follow, it might show profound results for complete Asia (Roadnight 2002: 80). Especially within the context of the hostilities on the Korean peninsula, the Asian and South Pacific region became one of Washington’s urgent priorities. As the American president Truman underlined, Indonesia hold a very significant strategic position “in relation to lines of communication and the network of offshore island bases” (ibid.).

To clearly understand these two positions and the political results that followed until 1965, it is important to have an overview about the developments in Indonesia during the early post-war years. Therefore, the following passage concentrates on the national situation between 1945 and 1949. Continuing from that, the paper will analyze the American and Soviet relationship towards Indonesia. Thereby, the two main research questions are how the both super-powers acted on the country’s government and moreover whether the Indonesian political leadership consequently followed the foreign policy of non-alignment.

3. Indonesian political situation between 1945 and 1949

Until the end of the Second World War the Indonesian population had faced a long history of external occupation and an intensive struggle for a national independence. With the establishment of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) in 1602, the Dutch became the dominant European power in Southeast Asia and gained significant influence over Indonesia (Van der Kroef 1952: 283). In 1800, however, the VOC was dissolved due to bankruptcy and Indonesia became, now as part of the new established Dutch East Indies, a nationalized colony (ibid.). The Dutch occupation continued until the Second World War, when Japanese troops invaded the country. The Indonesian fight for independence, which had started already under the Dutch leadership, was dramatically intensified during this period. Finally, after the end of the war, the two most influential leaders of the independence movement, Kusno Sosrodihardjo (Sukarno) and Mohammad Hatta, proclaimed the country’s independence on the 17th of August 1945. Whereas the Indonesian population celebrated this longed for moment, the international community didn’t acknowledge the declaration of independence (Sukma 1995: 306). Predominantly, the Dutch government was not willing to accept the new Indonesian republic. As a direct consequence, the following years were shaped by violent fights between the Indonesian people and the Dutch colonialist who attempted intensively to regain their former colony (ibid.). During all those years, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union showed any interest to get involved in the Dutch-Indonesian confrontation. Their main attention lay on the European continent where they had to face the dramatic aftermaths of the Second World War. Only the American side tried to support the Dutch efforts financially until 1948 (ibid.). As the Indonesian population, however, had a negative opinion about the Western world[7], the US alliance didn’t help the Dutch colonialist to realize their aim successfully.

Between 1947 and 1949, many Southeast Asian countries faced a period of numerous left-wing orientated riots and insurgencies – independently from the ongoing ideological dispute between the Cold War antagonists (Mason 2009: 7). Also Indonesia was strongly affected by this development as the Communist Party had development to an influential political power within the country. The national situation escalated in 1948 when the events of the so-called Madiun Affair drew the international attention towards Indonesia. This communist-led uprising took place in the context of the Indonesian national revolution movement, in which left and right wing parties came into conflict with each other. On September 18th, members of the Indonesian Communist Party as well as representatives of the Socialists proclaimed the Indonesian Soviet Republic in Madiun, a small part in East Java (Sidel 2007: 166). In this way, the two protesting parties hoped to build a powerful centre for revolution against the new national policy performed by Sukarno and Hatta. After a few weeks, however, the political uprising was put down immediately after the rebels had killed the governor of East Java, several police officers as well as religious leaders. The Madiun Affair itself and its aftermath led to the killing and imprisonment of many thousand rebellions, especially members of the Communist Party (ibid.: 168).

Soon after these events, the international community - far and foremost the United States - discussed whether the Communist rebellion had been probably directed by the USSR or if it had solely developed from national tensions. It was officially know that the Indonesian responsible for this movement, Musso, had spent a long-time exile in the Soviet Union before he came back to Indonesia (ibid.: 167). Concerning this fact, the American government hold up the so-called “Soviet Conspiracy Theory”, in which it accused the UDSSR of having actively manipulated all the Communist-led rebellions within Southeast Asia at that time (Mason 2009: 2). However, as many analyzes have shown until today, internal political factors played a more decisively role and ultimately led to the Madiun Affair in Indonesia than any command from the Soviet Union (ibid: 8/9). Besides the international political sphere, the rebellion and its aftermath also influenced the Indonesian system itself. Already in the course of the 1948 events, vice president Hatta found the Communist leader Musso guilty of “attempting to drag Indonesia into the Soviet American conflict” (McGregor 2009: 97). He reminded the rebellions as well as the residual Indonesian population that Indonesia didn’t want to take any position within the international conflict - neither should the country be controlled by the Americans, nor did it rest alongside with the Soviet Union. Interestingly, the international perception of Indonesia’s behaviour differed strongly from Hatta’s idea of neutrality. Whereas the American government highly appreciated the Indonesian drastic measures against the Communist Party and “felt it had gained a real ally (…), the Soviets had effectively lost one battle” (ibid.: 114).

After the Round Table Conference[8] in 1949, Indonesia gained ultimately its official independence (Van der Kroef 1952: 283). Regarding the foreign policy, the new government under president Sukarno focussed on two significant principles that had been already proclaimed by vice president Hatta one year before. As the political leader pointed out, he wanted to strengthen the idea of anti-colonalism (anti-kolonialisme) after the long national fight for independence. Secondly, Sukarno wanted to establish a conceptual framework of independent and active foreign policy (politik luar negeri bebas-aktif) (Sukma 1995: 306) that should guarantee a successful national development without foreign commitments. As the following year of his presidency showed, however, Sukarno didn’t follow the concept of a neutral foreign policy. In fact, he utilized foreign support tactically in order to strengthen the national power.

4. The Indonesian Non-Alignment Policy put to test

As the introductory passage has shown, president Sukarno as well as his prime minister Hatta underlined the importance of an international neutral position, a constant policy of non-alignment, several times during the early beginnings of the independent Indonesian Republic. Thereby they gave the international community the impression that the Indonesian foreign policy would be “passive pragmatic” (Sukma 1995: 309) in the future. Soon after Sukarno had enlarged his political influence, however, observers from the American and the Soviet bloc realized that Indonesia wouldn’t continuously follow this path. One main reason for this alternating behaviour was without doubt the president himself. Already in the early 1950s, he played a non-transparent game between the external powers on the one hand and the internal parties on the other hand (Farid 2007). He proclaimed an independent foreign policy, but took economic and military aids from both super-powers during the Cold War period. His national attention applied to the non-Communist army, but concurrently he worked together with the Communist Party, which had development to an important political force (ibid.).

Looking at the scientific researches regarding Indonesia’s position during the Cold War, there exist a huge amount of books, interview and statistics that focus in detail on the non-alignment policy of Indonesia and Sukarno’s intransparent behaviour. Despite this multiplicity of analyzes, however, a clear picture can’t be drawn. There are many researches who argument in favour of a strong relationship between America and Indonesia. Others hold the position that the Southeast Asian state moved closer to the Soviet side between 1945 and 1965. A third group of political scientists and historians finds the idea of a neutral foreign policy approved. The following passages exemplifies this scientific discussion by presenting two different sources – one regarding the relationship between Indonesia and the United States, the other one dealing with the Soviet-Indonesian alliance.

One highly profound work was presented in 2004 by the Russian researcher Larisa M. Efimova. In her book Stalin and Indonesia: Soviet Policy towards Indonesia, 1945-1953: Unknown Pages, Efimova examines historical Soviet documents that give new information about the relationship to Indonesia (Sidel 2007: 165). During the Indonesian War of Independence and the early 1950s, so the analysis, the Soviets didn’t show a strong interest in the Indonesian territory. Even though especially many Americans supposed a close connection between Indonesia and the Communist government in Moscow in the context of the left-winged insurgencies 1948 (Mason 2009: 2), this alliance wasn’t proved. As Efimova’s work points out, however, the UDSSR got more interested after the Communist Party gained a new leader in 1951 (Sidel 2007: 169). Due to that rising interest, many American observers considered Stalin to be strongly influential on the PKI development during this time and to actively support its political leader. Presenting internal Soviet data, which document the communication between the Communist government in Moscow and the Indonesian side, Efimova doesn’t find any proof for this alliance.


[1] Excerpt from a Soviet report to the Fourteenth Pacific Scientific Congress that took place in Khabarovsk in 1978. See J. S. DJIWANDONO, The Soviet Presence in the Asian Pacific Region: An Indonesian Perspective, in «Asian Affairs», Vol. 11, No. 4 (1985), p. 35.

[2] The American president Woodrow Wilson (in office 1913-1921) saw the solution for international conflict and warfare in the successful creation of democratic political systems based on national self-determination and free market economies – as it was realized, for example, trough the American model of historical development. The Leninist prescription for international development, on the other hand, was based on Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) view that any private ownership symbolized the root of all social conflict, including war. Therefore, this ideology aimed for the elimination of capitalism as the most significant precondition for a peaceful world. See R. E. KANET, The Superpower Quest for Empire: The Cold War and the Soviet Support for “Wars of National Liberation”, in «Cold War History», Vol. 6, No. 3 (2006), p. 332.

[3] As a direct answer to the American financial support through the Marshall Plan, the Soviet politician Andrei Zhdanov inaugurated the Communist Information Bureau in September 1947 and formulated the so-called Zhdanov doctrine. According to this doctrine that mainly focussed on the Russian cultural policy, the world was divided in two different camps. On the side, there existed a peaceful and democratic camp led by the Soviet Union. On the other hand, there was the dangerous American camp favouring imperialism and jeopardizing a worldwide well-being. See M. F. HOPKINS, Continuing Debate and New Approaches in Cold War History, in «The Historical Journal», Vol. 50, No. 4 (2007), p. 915.

[4] As the first country outside of the European battleground, Nikita Khrushchev supported the Egyptian government with military and economic aid. Egypt, as well as in the following years Syria and Iraq, was seen as a progressive regime with a highly promising potential for socialist policy ideas. See R. E. KANET, The Superpower Quest for Empire: The Cold War and the Soviet Support for “Wars of National Liberatio”, cit., p. 335.

[5] According to his speech, the concept of an independent and active foreign policy encompassed several significant elements. It had to follow the Pancasila (five principles), the national ideological foundation. Apart from that, the foreign policy should always guarantee the national well-being as defined in the constitution. As Hatta underlined, such a policy could only be accomplished trough independence. The last important aspect lay within the pragmatically implementation of the foreign policy. Especially with the focus on the ongoing bloc-building between the USA and the Soviet Union, the vice president made clear that Indonesia wanted to stick to a foreign policy that “should be resolved in the light of its own interests and should be executed in consonance with the situations and facts it has to face”. See R. SUKMA, The Evolution of Indonesia’s Foreign Policy: An Indonesian View, in «Asian Survey», Vol. 35, No. 3 (1995), p.308.

[6] The Communist Party in Indonesia (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) established as the first Communist Party in Asia in 1914. During the 1950s and 1960s, the party reached the height of its political influence. At that time “the PKI’s umbrella encompassed millions of members, making it the single largest CP outside the Soviet bloc and China”. See J. T. SIDEL, Review: From Russia with Love? Stalin i Indonyeziya: Politika SSSR v otnoshenii Indonyezii v 1945-1953 godakh: Nyeizvyestniye Stranitsiy (Stalin and Indonesia: Soviet Policy towards Indonesia, 1945-1953: Unknown Pages) by Larisa M. Efimova, in «Indonesia», No. 48 (2007), p. 171.

[7] As the Western powers had shown an ambivalent attitude towards the Indonesian fight for independence, the population was confirmed in its already negative opinion that the Western interests coincided more closely with the Dutch colonial power than with the occupied population. Also the reluctant acknowledgement of the Indonesian independence gave rise to a strong sense of anti-colonialism, which enforced the nationalist movement under Suharto and Hatta. See R. SUKMA, The Evolution of Indonesia’s Foreign Policy: An Indonesian View, cit ., p. 307.

[8] The Conference took place in The Hague on the 2nd November 1949. During the meeting, the Netherlands and the Republic of Indonesia signed the so-called Hague or Round Table Conference Agreement. With this mutual agreement both parties tried to finally end the violent conflict, which began after Indonesia’s independence proclamation in 1945. As a result of this treaty, the Dutch government transferred its political sovereignty over the former Duth East Indies to the Republic of Indonesia. Only the territory of West New Guinea (West Irian) was supposed to be split between the two countries through negotiations during the next year. Even though the Hague agreement acknowledged Indonesia as a sovereign country, the newly established government was not satisfied with all aspects. Especially the question of West New Guinea provoked many difficulties during the following years. In the end, the Indonesian parliament decided to revoke the Hague agreement. See


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2014 (Oktober)
Cold War Indonesia Non-alignment



Titel: A foreign policy of non-alignment? Indonesia's position during the Cold War