Indonesia consolidates its place in Asia

Indonesian soldiers 2018

Tourists in Bali cycle past Indonesian soldiers in this 2018 photo. Previously the default power in the nation, the army has accepted its new role as the guardian of the nation and not the arbiter of its political land economic affairs / Photo: Bloomberg

Indonesia’s transition, from holding the rotating presidency of the Group of 20, a cooperation forum of 20 of the world’s major economies, last year to chairing Asean this year highlights its rising international profile as an Asian power. That profile should be good for Southeast Asia’s prospects as a whole.

Indonesia clearly has “made it” on several fronts. The first front is geographical. Indonesia’s coherence as a nation state since its independence in 1945 is remarkable given that the country, the largest archipelago on earth, comprises more than 17,000 islands that stretch more than 5,000 km from East to West and 1,700 km from North to South along the Equator. Spread over five million square km, Southeast Asia’s largest nation consists of 84% water and 16% land. Five main islands — Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi and Papua — contribute to a maritime geography contoured by an 81,000 km coastline. That is quite a front.

The second front is demographic. With a relatively young population of more than 275 million, Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s most populous nation (and the world’s fourth most populous) as well as Asean’s largest economy. What sustains the geographical integrity of Indonesia is its eclectic culture. More than 300 ethnic groups cooperate and compete to establish and renew the Idea of Indonesia, which ranges culturally from Bali, where Hinduism thrives, to Aceh, whose Islamic legacy has earned it the distinction of being called the Porch of Mecca. In between Bali and Aceh, the world’s largest Muslim nation is guided by the philosophy of Pancasila, a constitutional reality that precludes its transformation into a confessional state. This is no mean achievement.

The third front is political. Once, it was thought that strongman Suharto had unified Indonesia under his praetorian rule after the political lurching from the communist Left to the Muslim Right during the iconic but ultimately indeterminate presidency of the charismatic Sukarno. The notion is not entirely wrong. Suharto’s strong anti-communist and pro-secular credentials had set Indonesia on a new path certainly.

However, his increasingly geriatric authoritarianism grated on the democratic sensibilities of the Indonesian people, particularly the young. Coupled with the familial and wider corruption that became endemic under his patrician and essentially military-centric rule, the imagined edifice of his new Indonesia was brought crashing down by the Asian Economic Crisis in the last years of the 20th century. Suharto retreated from the Indonesian mindscape as a once-necessary myth that had passed its psychological shelf-life. Autocracy’s time was finally over.

What followed was the democratisation of Indonesia’s political economy. Democracy did not provide a solution for national ills but it legitimised dissent as a way of acknowledging that grave ills existed and so the system was not perfect. Unlike the teleological finality of Suharto’s rule — the pretension that one man and his thoughts would define Indonesia forever — democracy was open-ended. It made Indonesia a work-in-progress that was amenable to peaceful, reformist change, change both incremental and structural. A succession of democratic leaders has made Indonesia forever post-Suharto. The military, once the default power in the nation, has accepted its new role as the guardian of the nation and not the arbiter of its political and economic affairs. Another feather in the Indonesian cap.

However, one immense drawback for Indonesia is the endemic corruption that has survived its welcome political transition to the reform era. In the Suharto era, corruption at the top, which then went down to the middle before permeating the bottom, was viewed popularly as a kind of indirect taxation imposed on citizens to exact gratitude for their inhabiting a peaceful and stable country. That feudal attitude should have changed with the onset of the reform era, but it did not. According to a UN agency, “corruption remains a serious problem and overall, progress has been slow. One reason for the moderate pace of reform on corruption issues is the deeply embedded institutional culture of patronage. Often, acts of bribery or corruption are not viewed by Indonesian authorities as corrupt practices.” No matter how much time has changed, they remain the same.

Middle power Indonesia

It is important to recapitulate these rather well known facets of contemporary Indonesia because it is the country’s domestic strengths (and its weaknesses) that make it a middle power on the international stage today. That designation, though, calls for some explanation.

The world system is characterised by the ruthless differentiation of power. First, there are dominant powers. The scholar Martin Wight defines a dominant power as one that “can measure strength against all its rivals combined”.

Second, there are great powers, whose interests are general in the sense of being coterminous with the system of states itself and which therefore “wish to monopolise the right to create international conflict”.

Third, there are world powers. Writing of a historical epoch that is passing, Wight defines a world power as “a great power which can exert effectively inside Europe a strength that is derived from resources outside Europe”.

Fourth, there are minor powers, of which middle powers are a subcategory. A middle power is a country “with such military strength, resources and strategic position that in peacetime the great powers bid for its support, and in wartime, while it has no hope of winning a war against a great power, it can hope to inflict costs on a great power out of proportion to what the great power can hope to gain by attacking it”.

Indonesians are wise enough to know that they cannot win a war against the world’s dominant powers, the United States and Russia; against a great power such as China; or even Britain or France. As for being a middle power, Indonesia shares that position with Vietnam and Thailand at least in Southeast Asia.

These ideas are important because once, Indonesia punched above its weight and failed. Konfrontasi (or the period of Confrontation from 1963–1966) was a conflict that was initiated under the mercurial Sukarno, who opposed the formation of the Federation of Malaysia consisting of Singapore, Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah).

Neither war nor civil war, Konfrontasi was an intermediate military strategy that witnessed Indonesians embarking on armed incursion, subversion and sabotage to destabilise the federation. That inglorious era in Southeast Asian history receded and finally ended following the easing of internal political struggles in Indonesia.

Today, the concept of Nusantara as a peculiarly Indonesian sphere of control and influence has lost its imperial significance. At most, it is a geographical construct which overlaps but is not restricted to the notion of Tanah Melayu, or Land of the Malays. The reason for this transition in Indonesian self-perceptions is that Indonesia’s arrival as a middle power in the global league of nations precludes the need for primitive hegemony in globalising maritime Southeast Asia. Unless a nationalist demagogue seizes power in Indonesia, especially on religious grounds, the archipelago should remain committed to its chosen trajectory of resilient growth and foreign policy independence embodied in the essential secularism of Pancasila and the capacity for non-alignment inherent in its foreign dealings.

Should Indonesia change course, it should remember that regional powers have risen only to fall in Southeast Asia. The Srivijaya and Majapahit empires once ruled as if the rest of time belonged to them. It did not. They vanished. So did Dutch imperialism, in opposition to which independent Indonesia itself was born. Indonesia’s middle-power status should never lead it to believe that it is Southeast Asia’s natural hegemon. There is no such thing. What exists is the natural synergy between the region’s largest power and its compatriots in Asean.

Asean’s role

Asean’s fate and that of Indonesia are tied up with each other. Without Indonesia, Asean would not be taken seriously even by itself. But without Asean, Indonesia would not be taken seriously by the dominant and great powers whose interests and designs determine the fortunes of all the secondary powers in the state system. In fact, even as Asean stands, the United States and China do not treat it as a fixture of the international system.

Unlike the European Union, Asean is not a supranational organisation. It is not founded on the idea of pooled sovereignty that characterises the EU. It does not possess a common currency nor is ever likely to do so. The defence and security policies of its members are aligned, but only at the highest levels of diplomatic abstraction. Its-peopleto-people relations are largely bilateral or multilateral: No sense of “Aseanism”, no matter how vicarious, approximates to the instinctive Europeanism that belongs to the inhabitants of continental Europe.

What Asean possesses is a regional sense of being a particular place in a far-flung world. That is good enough to start with but is not good enough in a world of great powers that would not hesitate to tear Asean apart to secure their passing ends. Should that occur, Asean would lose Indonesia, but so would Indonesia lose Asean as an expanded diplomatic space for itself. Indonesia owes it to itself to belong to Asean. This recognition is apparent in the consistency of Indonesian foreign policy. It reflects the country’s historical role in the Non-Aligned Movement, the most articulate voice of the Third World; its natural demographic affinity with the Muslim world; and its irreplaceable place in the syncretistic sphere of Southeast Asia — all in equal measure.

It is this Indonesia which stands out as an iconic Southeast Asian nation, one which can accompany other such nations on a common journey to regional success and power. The coming presidential election in Indonesia will offer its citizens an opportunity to demonstrate their fealty to the Idea of Indonesia, an idea at once national, regional and global. Pancasila within and the concomitant inclusiveness of Indonesia abroad should remain the cornerstones of Southeast Asia’s largest power.