Is Indonesia a Rising Power to be Reckoned With?


2014 05 06 10 01 24


April 29, 2015 update:

Indonesia has received a lot of international criticism in the past months for the executions of foreign drug convicts. Yet neither Australia nor Brazil will allow bilateral ties with Jakarta to be affected in the long term; Indonesia has simply become too important. Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy, the country with the world's largest Muslim population, and a key player in Asia. Below a short piece I wrote after my trip to Jakarta in 2014.


The rise of the emerging world and the relative decline of the West was the dominating global narrative of the past decade, and it continues to be an important dynamic of today's discussion. Partly thanks to the creation of the BRICs concept by Jim O'Neill in 2001, Brazil, Russia, India and China came to symbolize this transformation, receiving a sometimes disproportionate amount of attention, foreign investment and political projection. All four members today stand transformed on the global stage, having successfully used the first ten years of the century to boost their visibility.

While political analysts often criticize the BRICs grouping for its supposed incoherence, a key uniting element is often overlooked: All four initial member countries (prior to South Africa's accession in December 2010) have global ambitions - a global project, however ill-defined, voiced frequently. It is here that the BRICs grouping is indeed a useful political category - for example, there are no emerging powers outside of it that have a systematic engagement with the UN Security Council, either as permanent members or committed candidates. 

This becomes clear when looking at Indonesia, another important rising power and one of the world’s most attractive emerging markets, with a decade of impressive economic growth, a large and fast-growing middle class and vast natural resources. With its 240 million inhabitants, Indonesia is certain to play a key role in the global economy in the 21st century. The recent release of a report from the World Bank’s International Comparison Program (ICP), which compares countries’ GDP using purchasing-power-parity (PPP) exchange rates, rather than market rates, listed Indonesia as the world's tenth largest economy. The news, naturally, served as a confidence booster and made headlines in Indonesia, a country that democratized less than two decades ago.

Yet regarding its foreign policy rhetoric, Indonesia is not yet comparable to the BRICS. Foreign policy makers in Jakarta are increasingly active within the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), a grouping that hopes to form a new EU-like economic community by 2015. In addition, Indonesia's Presidents have begun to travel the world, as did outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (known as SBY), the country's first directly elected president, seeking closer cooperation with India, Australia and China.

As Ted Piccone and Bimo Yusman write,

SBY’s administration has been eager to share its experiences on democratic transition with other leaders of aspiring democracies, including Myanmar and Egypt, and hosts an annual Asia-Pacific forum on democracy designed to lend legitimacy to a political reform agenda. SBY also has chosen gradually to increase Indonesia’s international profile by taking part in the G-20 summits and co-chairing the UN Secretary General’s 27-member High Level Panel on the Post-2015 (Millennium Development Goals) Development Agenda.

Yet, contrary to Brazil and India, Indonesia does not forcefully voice its hopes of joining the world's great power elite at the UNSC, and neither the government nor Indonesian foreign policy pundits say that Indonesia should join the BRICS club. This is notable, for joining the BRICS grouping would bear little cost yet is highly symbolic, and many countries, ranging from Turkey, Nigeria, Egypt and even Argentina, have - formally or informally - made accession requests. 

This, however, does not mean that Indonesia has not begun to engage globally in a substantive way. In early 2013, SBY disregarded a long-standing foreign policy tradition of not interfering in the affairs of other nations — one of the chief principles that came out of the Asian-African Conference in Bandung in 1955 — and asked Syria's President Assad to step down. Such a comment from the world's largest Muslim democracy is indeed notable, even though it has done little to follow-up on the initiative, and it later abstained from condemning Assad in the UN General Assembly. 

Indonesia has also, similar to Brazil, assumed regional leadership in several instances. Ticcone and Yuswan point out that

...Indonesia has taken some action within its neighborhood to promote human rights and democracy. For example, it has made concrete efforts to encourage Myanmar to make the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Shortly after the Burmese government crackdown on the participants of the Saffron Revolution in 2007, SBY sent retired General Agus Widjojo to cajole Myanmar’s military junta to embrace democratic transition.

The Bali Democracy Forum (BDF) is another medium through which Indonesia has promoted international norms of democracy, even though Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran regularly participate and rarely face any overt criticism there. Ticcone and Yusman underline its possibly positive impact, underlining that 

Indonesia launched BDF in 2008 as an annual open intergovernmental forum on the development of democracy in the Asia-Pacific region. Participating countries engage in dialogue based on sharing experiences and best practices in regards to promotion of democratic ideals. The Institute for Peace and Democracy (IPD)—also established in 2008—supports the BDF’s goal of instilling concepts and skills for peace and democracy through intellectual exchanges, training for practitioners, joint missions, network building, publications, and capacity building at Bali’s Udayana University where it is headquartered.

This suggests that Indonesia, while not employing the assertive foreign policy rhetoric common among BRICS countries, is indeed a rising political power to be reckoned with. In fact, its regional leadership strategy provides an interesting case study for policy makers in Brasília, Delhi and Pretoria, which seek to promote political stability and democracy in their respective neighborhood. The coming decades are certain to see Indonesia's global visibility increase dramatically.

For now, BRICS governments are right to focus on institutionalizing the grouping rather than expanding membership. If, however, they ever decided to invite additional members, Indonesia deserves to receive the first call.

Photo credit: Jakarta Globe

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