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05 Apr 2012
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As a middle power in the international system of states, Indonesia’s recent domestic stability and democratisation under the leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004 till present) motivates its quest to become a member of the league of great powers in the international system.

As a middle power in the international system of states, Indonesia's recent domestic stability and democratisation under the leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004 till present) motivates its quest to become a member of the league of great powers in the international system.

Indonesia’s regional hegemonic position in Southeast Asia has its roots during the era of Republic of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, who espoused the concept and vision of Indonesia Raya (Greater Indonesia), thus stating its early intention to be a dominant force in the Malay Archipelago which encompasses mainly the maritime domain of Southeast Asia. Through the politics of confrontation and nonalignment, Sukarno believed that Indonesia had the attributes to lead the Malay world and other states that did not align with western capitalist and imperialist interests, especially in Southeast Asia. After the political demise of Sukarno, General Suharto took power and continued Indonesia’s imperative foreign policy of free and active (bebas dan aktif) regional as well as international outlooks yet playing a central role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since Indonesia is the largest country in Southeast Asia and a founding member of ASEAN. Suharto continued Sukarno’s vision of Indonesia as a leader of the ASEAN grouping, differentiating his rule from that of Sukarno’s by establishing friendly relations with western powers, distancing from China and emphasising its soft power credentials to other states within the ASEAN grouping.

The political demise of Suharto in the aftermath of his mishandling of the 1997 financial crisis— where he surrendered Indonesia’s economic sovereignty to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—wrought nearly a decade of domestic chaos. In that time, Indonesia endured a period of democratic consolidations with B.J. Habibie, Megawati Soekarnoputri and Abdurrahman Wahid as transitional leaders until democratic elections in 2004 placed General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in the highest political office to project Indonesia beyond its domestic challenges and rise again as a respected middle power as it was during the reigns of Sukarno and Suharto. President Yudhoyono, however, took on a quest for great power status in order to uplift Indonesia’s international profile which it had once enjoyed. In this sense, the change and continuity in Indonesia’s foreign policy is found in its desire to pursue a “free and active” foreign policy of deeds and words along with an additional requirement of strategic balancing between two superpowers (mendayung antara dua karang) in the world today—the US and China. It is therefore intellectually puzzling as to whether Indonesia has the necessary attributes to be a great power among the greats and what conditions Indonesia might need to fulfil in order to be accepted into this league of great powers.


To be first among equals

In his magnum opus, The Anarchical Society: The Study of Order in World Politics, the late Professor Hedley Bull postulates that for a country to be a great power, it has to fulfil the following criteria. First, the rising middle power aspiring to be a great power must be a leader in its immediate region and accorded the duties as well as rights to exert its great power role in the international relations system of states. Next, the aspiring middle power must be recognised by other great powers as a member of the league of great powers. Finally, the aspiring middle power has military strength which can include nuclear power (though not a key factor) above other countries in which it is a leader of, though this whole criteria is not a key consideration by Bull for a middle power who aspire to be a great power to reach its goal. Bull’s criteria of a middle power aspiring to be a great power implicitly implies that the middle power must be a regional leader in terms of norms and structures along with acceptance of becoming a member in the league of great powers by other great powers, sealed by its dominant military strength in the region in which it is leading.

Thus, President Yudhoyono’s declaration in 2011 for Indonesia to be a great power between the years 2015 and 2025 must be evaluated for realistic attainment and implications since Indonesia is key to ASEAN’s strategic role in regional and world politics. Additionally, the rise of China and India along with the existence of other middle powers such as South Korea, Japan and Australia could turn to the peril of small states such as Singapore and Brunei if Indonesia’s genesis to a great power status begins to take shape in the projected time above. If Indonesia rises to a great power status through ASEAN, it would make moot the idea of the Asia Pacific Community (APC) proposed by Australia in 2008 since the APC would have restructured the strategic landscape of Asia to the disadvantage of small states.

Also, an Indonesia that rises to a great power status through ASEAN would benefit the regional association by positioning ASEAN as the key institution that underpins Indonesia’s internationalist profile.


ASEAN as enabler and benefactor

ASEAN thus provides a central platform for Indonesia’s leadership position in Southeast Asia and henceforth its projection of a great power status in the wider international system. Without ASEAN, Indonesia’s ability to project its soft power credentials as embodied in the ASEAN’s main principles of cooperation (muafakat) and consensus (musyawarah) will not be institutionalised for it was through rectifying the politics of confrontation during the reign of Sukarno that Suharto endeavoured to strengthen the ASEAN institution by erasing those bad memories associated with Maphilindo (Malaysia-Philippines- Indonesia) and Indonesia Raya visions. While countries in Southeast Asia stabilised their domestic setting through Indonesia’s peaceful projection of its regional leadership, Indonesia’s other soft power abilities was also demonstrated in cases such as mediating post-separation conflicts between Singapore and Malaysia, and the more recent example of Indonesia’s successful effort to persuade Myanmar to recognise the need to democratise its domestic political landscape. Hence, Indonesia’s soft power projection through its leadership role in ASEAN illustrates its regional leadership role in the regional institution. Yet, it is also the ASEAN regional institution that enables Indonesia to be recognised as part of the G-20 countries for, other than its huge economic weight, ASEAN countries’ stable relationship with Indonesia allows its socio-political and economic arenas to flourish with inter- ASEAN trade and investments grew rapidly.

Furthermore, as a regional power, Indonesia is arguably posited as the “big brother” to Malaysia. Since time immemorial, the contestation for leadership in the Malay Archipelago between Indonesia and Malaysia has led to attacks by Indonesian polities to subjugate Peninsula Malaysia’s kingdoms, as was the case when the Majapahit Kingdom made incursions into Malacca Sultanate until the late 15th century and when Kerajaan Aceh reigned over the Johor-Riau Sultanate in the 17th century. Closer to contemporary times, the politics of identity exemplifies contestation between the two states over rights of cultural symbols such as claims over who invented the batik art of textile designs. Indonesia’s nationalism mostly exerted a higher level of intense nationalism which shadows over Malaysia’s nationalism due to the international appeal and image of the cultural motif to Indonesia’s foremost position in the Malay Archipelago. In history, during the height of confrontational politics between Malaysia and Indonesia where Sukarno declared the vision of “Greater Indonesia”, Malaysia undertook diplomatic cover by using United Nations (UN) and its relation with great powers, then such as Great Britain, to widen its territorial reach into Sabah and Sarawak to the angst of Sukarno. Also, since Indonesia actualises a secular constitution and governing practices, with superpowers and great powers in the international system premised on secular governing foundation, Indonesia’s secularism is favoured over Malaysia’s ethnic-based political principles and practices. It is therefore in this context of the identity cultural leadership and secular foundations of Indonesia that the current American President, Barack Obama, recognises Indonesia as rising great power, besides Indonesia’s wide territory and its strategic centrality within the ASEAN regional institution.


A question of might

The Achilles heel of Indonesia’s rise lies in how it exercises its military might. Indonesia is a landbased military force with the army controlling the naval, air and police forces. Also, it has a limited military budget of less than 3 per cent espoused in Indonesia’s military concept of achieving a “minimum essential force”. Indeed, Indonesia is a far-flung archipelagic state, and her leaders and people express nationhood as tanahair, which combines two words—land and water—to form a single expression, thus fusing the vast territory through the water system instead of viewing the rivers and seas as obstacles to socio-political integration. The Indonesian armed forces is incapable of expanding beyond Indonesia. It does not have the technology, equipment and strategy to go beyond its shores as the norm of conventional warfare would require.

Furthermore, with Indonesia situated along the geographic ring of (volcanic) fire, the development of nuclear might as a strategic intent of the Indonesian leadership has not only stalled but is open to criticism. As a strongly land-based military, the Tentera Nasional Indonesia (TNI)’s first and utmost role is to secure its borders and sovereignty while keeping the TNI away from its once dual function (dwi-fungsi) role of controlling politics and military of the country. Today, the TNI is made to focus on its military role as its true niche. Also, with the rise of China as a regional hegemon in East Asia, Indonesia’s improving military ties with US and recognition of Indonesia’s potential great power status in the international system of states would serve to balance China and limit China’s soft power expansion. It might conceivably position Indonesia to lead the middle powers in East Asia for any possible military confrontations with China in the South China Sea.

As Professor Donald E Weatherbee has opined, Indonesia is a phoenix on the rise. With its secular foundation, political and cultural leadership roles in ASEAN as well as soft power credentials to manage intra-ASEAN countries’ relations and internal democratisation dynamics, US recognition of Indonesia’s rise to a great power status and future inception into the league of great power status is clearly in sight. Indonesia however must remember that it has its roots in Southeast Asia and it is ASEAN that gives Indonesia a platform to project its soft power credentials through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asian Summit (EAS) and Southeast Asian issues at large. Without ASEAN’s complicity, Indonesia will remain as another large territory in a diverse region, stifled of its ability to reach its true potential as a leader in Southeast Asia. Also, without Indonesia’s leadership, ASEAN could be burdened by its territorial and political conflicts, divided without an effective regional mediator and vulnerable to superpowers and great powers strategic games. Both ASEAN and Indonesia need one another in order to first propel Indonesia into the league of great powers as well as positioning ASEAN as a leading regional grouping worthy of emulation in the world today. In that way, a win-win situation is achieved and principles of consensus (musyawarah) and cooperation (muafakat) in Southeast Asia are further solidified.


Syed Mohammed Ad’ha Aljunied is a Research Associate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. His area of focus is International Relations. His email is

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