Indonesia’s dance with the titans

| Evan A. Laksmana | Jakarta, 27 March 2010 |

Many Indonesians were disappointed when United States President Barack Obama cancelled his long-awaited “homecoming” trip to Jakarta last week. He was, after all, the only American President Indonesians could boast about being “one of their own”.

But pundits quickly point out that the country should move on and be more excited instead to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Chinese-Indonesian diplomatic relations next month, during which Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is expected to visit Jakarta.

Officials have expressed hope that his visit could not only deepen ties with Jakarta but also strengthen China’s relationship with Asean.

And with the postponement of Mr Obama’s visit possibly still smarting, analysts in Indonesia reason that rather than kowtowing to a “distant yet intrusive” power such as the US, Indonesia should instead focus on building better ties with China, the biggest economic and military power in the region.

Others, however, believe that Indonesia should be closer to Australia and India as a counterweight to both Chinese and American influence and power. These two countries have, like China, signed “strategic partnership” agreements with Jakarta in recent years.

These debates suggest that Indonesia may be heading towards a classic “dance of the titans” reminiscent of the Cold War, when every major power tried to woo Jakarta.

Indonesia is, after all, the largest democracy in South-east Asia, with the largest Muslim population in the world. It controls strategic waterways and is a potential economic powerhouse, given its large market and vast energy and mineral resources.

Investment in Indonesia could grow by 15 per cent this year and its economy is forecast to grow by close to 6 per cent next year.

So the old analogy of Indonesia as a “pretty woman” that everyone wants to woo has stood the test of time. But so has the same logical response by Jakarta to hedge and counter-balance the great powers – what scholars call an “omni-enmeshment” strategy.

Traditionally, the country has never been very successful bedfellows with only one great power for a long period of time.

From the Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s perspective, though, the idea today is no longer about balancing great powers to minimise dependence – as it was during the Cold War – but about forging new equal strategic partnerships with them and levelling the playing field.

The unintended consequences of such development, however, is that the growing engagement of major powers has been accompanied by a growing buildup in arms in the region.

According to a report recently released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the deliveries of major conventional weapons to South-east Asia nearly doubled in the 2005-2009 period, compared to 2000-2004. In that period, deliveries to Malaysia increased by 722 per cent, Singapore by 146 per cent and Indonesia by 84 per cent.

While we could debate whether this implies simply a period of military modernisation or a regional arms race, the uncertainties surrounding Beijing’s military development – in terms of its ballooning defence budget, or aircraft carrier development, for example – has raised concerns about the region’s future stability, especially given the rise of other powerhouses like India, Japan, Australia and South Korea.

This has tempted many superpowers to move away from the usual carrot-and-stick approach when dealing with Indonesia, instead focusing on new “soft power” approaches like cultural and economic diplomacy – what some have dubbed as a “charm offensive”.

Yet, with all these changes and their possible ramifications on Indonesia’s foreign policy, the government has yet to complete and publish a concrete, well-thought-out blueprint or white paper on how it intends to reposition Indonesia’s role, regionally and globally.

This could make it very difficult for Jakarta to chart its course in the new world order. And it makes convincing an already-sceptical public on the government’s foreign policy direction an even more daunting task.

After all “all politics is still local”, a US Congressman once said. And for Jakarta, this cliche still holds true.

The writer is a researcher with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta.

The article was originally published by Today.


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