INDONESIA IN THE MIDDLE OF SUPERPOWERS RIVALRY
by Rizal Hamdan 19th October 2020
The potential for Indonesia to become Asia’s next superpower is massive. In terms of economy, Indonesia’s GDP is the largest with accounting for almost 35 percent of total GDP ASEAN member countries combined. The world’s largest archipelago is moving towards rapid paces in development and vibrant economy.
Therefore, Indonesia as an emerging power with robust market, is vital to the United States of America (US) and the People’s Republic of China’s (China) geopolitical strategy.
Indonesia has always maintained a cordial relationship with the US. Since 1949, both countries have had experienced ups and down in diplomatic relations. During John F Kennedy’s presidency, Washington initially increased the economic aid to Jakarta as the ways to assist the country’s development.
Unbeknownst to Sukarno, Lyndon B Johnson’s accession to the Presidency in 1963, brought the countries cordial relations to a bitter end. Since then, Washington’s approach towards Jakarta becoming more anti-Sukarno and culminated with his downfall in 1967.
General Suharto’s accession to the Presidency had shifted both countries into the new paradigm of diplomatic relations. At the height of the Cold War, Indonesia strategic location was pivotal in deterring the influence of communism in Southeast Asia.
The moment President George W Bush launched his global War on Terrorism campaign, Indonesia once again became a valuable ally to the US’s foreign policy objective. In the light of Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005, strategic cooperation to counter terrorism activity between two countries had increased steadily.
Indonesia was once considered as a ‘friendly state’ to China. The country’s foreign policy orientation was once pro-Beijing during Sukarno’s presidency. Nonetheless, they went through the period of diplomatic turbulence when the bilateral relations were suspended on October 30, 1967 amidst failed coup d'état staged by the Communist Party of Indonesia.
Eventually, bilateral relations have restored and improved since 1980s. At this moment, China is Indonesia’s largest trading partner, with accounts for 24 percent of Indonesia’s total trade.
Hence, in reshaping the geopolitics of Southeast Asia, as the nation with the largest Muslim population in the world, having Indonesia on the same alliance is an advantage either to the US or China.
How Indonesia alignment choices change the geopolitics of Southeast Asia?
As a foreign policy observer, I reckon the strategic role of Indonesia in shaping the geopolitics of the Southeast Asia. In term of military power, Indonesia has the largest numbers of military personnel close to 800,000 active servicemen. The country’s defense budget for the year of 2020 is estimated almost USD 2 billion higher than Vietnam.
The Austrian newspaper, Die Presse reported, Indonesia intended to procure 15 units of the world’s most advance multirole combat aircraft, the Eurofighter Typhoon. If both parties manage to seal the deal, Indonesia will become the giant of air power in the region.
Unlike Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesian politics is unique in a way the military dual functions (Dwi-Fungsi Militer) doctrine inevitably determine the country’s political scenario. In other words, the armed forces’ influence must not be undermined in the state’s decision-making process. Therefore, the minister of defense is the most powerful post in the Indonesia’s government, second only to the President.
Probowo Subianto is a controversial figure in Indonesia. As a former commander of much feared special forces (KOPASSUS), he was accused of atrocities committed by the troops he had led in 1998. As a result, he was barred from entering the US for almost 20 years. Under the Trump administration, Washington has lifted the order and officially invited him to visit the US.
On top of that, Jakarta has obtained clearance from Washington to procure US military products worth USD 2 billion including 8 MV-22 block C osprey aircraft. In my opinion, this is an attempt by Washington to balance China’s growing military and economic influence in the Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, China is applying a tactful strategy amidst the outbreak of pandemic. Moving away from traditional security strategy, China is offering Indonesia into the joint COVID-19 vaccine programs. This may turn Indonesia to become a regional hub for vaccine production in ASEAN.
The way I see it, ‘the vaccine diplomacy’ is twofold strategy which may benefit Jakarta in knowledge-technology transfer and simultaneously generate the economic growth in Indonesia. In the meantime, neighbouring country, Malaysia is already included in a priority list to receive the vaccine, which currently being develop by the Chinese company.
As a foreign policy observer, I predict the other member of ASEAN such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia will jump on the bandwagon as soon as the vaccine be available in the market.
Therefore, Indonesia’s influence as ‘de facto’ regional leader among ASEAN countries must not be undermined. This explain why both China and the US are throwing their best offers to get Indonesia on their side.
Regardless which side will Indonesia decide to be with in its strategic alignment, it will leave significant impact to the geopolitics of Southeast Asia. As the biggest country in ASEAN with vibrant economy, stable government and robust market, Indonesia is apparently an epicentre in a strategic alignment of superpowers’ rivalry in the Southeast Asia.
Rizal Hamdan, Executive Director, NADI Centre