Episode 30. The Geopolitics of Indonesia
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With a new cold war between the USA and China looming on the horizon, the balance of power in Asia is being drawn up, with Beijing and Washington vying for influence in the region. Of all the nations of importance though none will be as crucial as Indonesia. Set to be the 4th largest economy by the year 2050, Indonesia is quickly becoming a regional leader, one that could dictate the direction for ASEAN and Southeast Asia for decades to come. So we sat down with our expert panel to talk about the future of this soon to be giant.
Senior Analyst at Perth USAsia Centre
Former Rsearcher for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies
Expert on Indonesia and its role in the Indo-Pacific
Senior Researcher for Verve Research
PhD Scholar for Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU
Has worked with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Australian Department of Defence
CEO of the Perth USAsia Centre
Professor at the University of Western Australia
Co-Chair on the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
Member of the International Advisory Board for the David M Kennedy Centre
Part 1: From London to Kabul (2:55)
Indonesia is a very decentralised nation, with most of the political and economic infrastructure concentrated in the Western part of the 17,000 island archipelago. With Kyle Springer we discuss the history and governance of Indonesia, including Dutch colonisation, the Japanese Invasion during the Second World War, and the struggle for independence.
Indonesia's national identity has been shaped by this shared experience of colonisation, first by the Dutch, and then the Japanese, and is critical to understanding the country’s psyche and the way in which it preserves unity.
The leader of the independence movement, and the country’s first President Sukarno, was one of the most influential and formative leaders in the nation’s history. Despite Sukarno's own links to the Indonesia Communist Party, and the Party’s sizable political influence, Indonesia remained apart from the Socialist bloc during the Cold War, and the PKI was ultimately subject to a bloody purge which ushered in a period of military rule culminating in the Suharto Presidency.
In the years following the Asian Financial Crisis, which ultimately discredited Suharto’s developmental policies and his government, Indonesia has transitioned into a more liberal democratic state. Today it is led by President Joko Widodo, hailed by some as the "Asian Obama".
The greatest policy challenge for the Indonesian government is its highly fractured geography, and the highly variable infrastructure which comes with that. Without effective supply chains to much of the country, growth has been hampered significantly, and its potential remains out of reach. Various actors have sought to invest in the ongoing infrastructure projects, most notably China, via its Belt and Road Initiative, and Japan who has been an important investor in Southeast Asia for decades.
Part 2: Scattered (23:43)
In its modern form, Indonesia's decentralised governance is a product of the transition to democracy in the nineties, which saw a desire to see wealth and political power more evenly distributed across the nation. This is tied to its efforts to maintain a sense of national unity by openly embracing the immense cultural, economic, and religious diversity found amongst its peoples.
This national unity is essential for the government to maintain control over the thousands of disparate islands and regions, control which is sometimes threatened by extremist and separatist groups.
With Natalie Sambhi we explore the security challenges facing Indonesia, namely Jihadist organisations such as Jemaah Islamiyah and IS, as well as the independence movement in West Papua. Especially in West Papua, the wealth of resources in the region is an important motivator for the government to ensure its ongoing grip on control. The emotional and political effect that a successful break-away might have on the nation is a serious danger; the Indonesian government does not want to get into a world in which its regions can start to separate.
We also look at the relationship between Indonesia and its former possession Timor Leste, the challenges faced by their respective governments in building a functional and productive relationship , as well as the promises and realities of the Presidency of Joko Widodo.
Since independence the Armed Forces have been very internally focused, concerned principally with holding together Indonesia's territory and exerting domestic political influence. The visible presence of the military within all levels of political society has helped to entrench its image and positive reputation with the public.
The army is far and away the principal focus, with the navy and air force lacking considerably in funding and equipment. This has left the navy on the back-foot when seeking to confront or police incursions into the EEZ from Chinese naval and fishing vessels near the Natuna Islands.
Part 3: Crossing the 9 Dash Line (48:06)
Indonesia stands as a de facto leader of the ASEAN organisation, and was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement. While by no means hostile to the US (though it was closer under Suharto), it has remained at arm’s length from the other security arrangements which the US has established in the Asia Pacific.
Even with the emergent challenges posed by China, American efforts to organise ASEAN members into an anti-China coalition have been met with relative indifference due to the substantial trade and investment ties China hold with Indonesia and the region.
Gordon Flake explains the regional geopolitical dynamics which Indonesia is enmeshed in, and how the emerging contest between America and China for influence in South-East Asia is playing out.
We consider the ramifications of the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership under President Trump and, as Flake puts it, the failure of Chinese foreign Policy to keep Indonesia neutral, prompting a more proactive Indonesian and ASEAN response to Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
We also discuss Indonesia's relationships with its neighbours, including Australia, Malaysia, and India, as well as the slow shift in the discourse from economic regionalism to security oriented regionalism in South-East Asian politics, especially in light of the new "Quad" arrangement.
Flake argues that Indonesia and its neighbours are concerned first and foremost with their own independence and strategic freedom, and while concerned about some of China's actions, are reluctant to integrate themselves formally into a US-led security system or any binding alliance, and will seek to maintain a balancing position between them for as long they can.
The Red Line's Indonesia Reading List:
We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Indonesia.
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This episode is dedicated to Patreon member Zachary Peterson.