The Future of Indonesia-UK Relations Post-Brexit

On Tuesday 9th July the British Foreign Policy Group and the Indonesian Embassy co-hosted a seminar on ‘The Future of Indonesia-UK Relations Post-Brexit’ in London. Forming part of a series of events celebrating the 70th anniversary of Indonesia-UK diplomatic relations, the seminar explored the potential to innovate and advance relations between Indonesia and the UK.

With welcoming remarks from the Ambassador of the Republic of Indonesia, H. E. Dr Rizal Sukma, a panel discussion took place, chaired by Dr Champa Patel, Head of Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House. Participants included:

  • H.E. Dr Dino Patti Djalal, Chair of the Foreign Policy Community Indonesia
  • Richard Graham MP, Chair of the APPG on Indonesia
  • Martin Hatfull, Chair of the Anglo-Indonesian Society and former UK Ambassador to Indonesia
  • Orlando Edwards, Regional Manager, Global Network Team, British Council


Ambassador Dr Rizal Sukma opened the discussion by stating that there is a need for both countries to further get to know each other – the UK in understanding Indonesia and its involvement in East Asia and the Pacific, and Indonesia in understanding ‘Global Britain’ and the opportunities available to develop the relationship.

The panellists then discussed the challenges and opportunities that the UK-Indonesia relationship faces. Discussion centred loosely around China and geopolitical relations, education, trade and the environment, and religion.

China and Geopolitical Relations

Richard Graham MP was the first to raise engagement with China as an opportunity shared by both nations. Dr Dino Patti Djalal noted that Indonesia’s trade with China is rapidly increasing, expected to reach $100 billion in the next few years, whilst its trade with the US is decreasing, currently worth $16 billion. Dr Djalal emphasised that handling China is fast becoming the biggest foreign policy question facing Indonesia, specifically how to squeeze the economic benefits without the country losing its political independence.

Martin Hatfull noted that it would be difficult for both the UK and Indonesia to focus on the bilateral relationship as the UK is preoccupied with Brexit, and Indonesia is focusing on the relationship with ASEAN, the USA and China. Dr Djalal concurred that Brexit was making Britain look distracted, confused, and messy internationally. The course of Brexit, he said, will affect how Indonesia will work with the UK. On a more positive note, Martin Hatfull noted that when Brexit does happen, the UK will be looking for friends and allies to boost its international relationships, which could benefit the UK-Indonesian partnership.


Orlando Edwards gave a compelling account of how the Indonesia-UK relationship can be boosted through education. He outlined opportunities to engage with Indonesia through transnational education programmes, such as the teaching of UK university programmes within Indonesia, or programmes split between Indonesia and the UK. He also highlighted the work of the British Council in promoting the cultural sector in Indonesia, with the recent disabled arts festival in Indonesia, which has now become an annual event. In the UK, Indonesian culture has been promoted through events included the London Book Fair.

Richard Graham also emphasised the need to strengthen these people-people links between the two countries. He said there was a need to move individuals’ awareness of the other nation beyond tourism, to school and university experiences. Martin Hatfull added that there is a need to get more British students interested in studying in Indonesia, as there has been an increase in Indonesian students studying in the UK, which has not been matched the other way. Dr Djalal echoed this and added that the difficulty lies in the Indonesian visa system for students, as the country is not very open to foreign students who want to study or research in Indonesia. He also noted that there are currently only around 5,000 Indonesian students in the UK, with far more studying in Australia. Opening up education will be key for strengthening the relationship between the two countries.


Martin Hatfull said that the UK’s track record on identifying sectors to prioritise in terms of export and investment is not great, and that the country should take a longer-term view. He said that a joint task force could be created to see how both countries can make the most of the trading relationship, with Indonesia prioritising infrastructure, and the UK human capital. Dr Djalal noted that a good way to build economic relations would be through a sharing of technology and innovation from the UK to Indonesia. He added that a key stumbling block for increasing trading relations is the visa issue – the cost of visas for his family of five to get to the UK was over half the cost of his ticket. Martin Hatfull agreed that visa issues are key for trade too.

In building the UK-Indonesia trade relationship, speakers emphasised the importance of maintaining awareness of the environment. Richard Graham MP highlighted climate change as an issue of growing importance to both Indonesia and the UK. Martin Hatful said coordinating a climate agenda could be a ‘quick win’ for strengthening the relationship. On the topic of palm oil, Dr Djalal gave an account of the radical change in Indonesia’s position on palm oil since the 1970s, from having one of the world’s worst rates of deforestation, to working with the international community to encourage corporate discipline on the subject.


Dr Djalal noted that after the recent elections in Indonesia, the Islamic community is divided, as both electoral candidates tried to prove their links to Islam. He linked this to rising religious insecurity around the world, as white evangelists in the USA harbour increasingly negative attitudes towards Islam, Christians elsewhere in the world are restricted, alongside Muslims and Jews. He recommended a programme focusing on Muslim-Muslim relations in Britain and Indonesia. Fixing relations at the grassroots, he said, would begin to improve the problem. Champa Patel, the Chair, noted that majoritarianism of religion in a problem all over Asia, whereby religious minorities feel marginalised and discriminated against. She said that liberal values of religious pluralism are being undermined at all levels, for example with Islamaphobia in the UK Conservative party, and Islamist extremism in Indonesia. Orlando Edwards noted that the limited resources of the British Council means that they have to prioritise their work in certain areas, usually urban. Thus, they are unable to focus on tackling the rising extremism taught in rural Indonesian schools.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Flora Holmes

Flora Holmes is a Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group.