About a month ago, my colleague Yohanes penned a piece in Strategic Review that lamented Indonesia’s lack of a grand strategy. He suggested that Indonesia’s current foreign policy is aimless and reactionary. After the article’s publication, Yohanes revealed that he wondered what an effective, coherent Indonesian grand strategy would look like. Admittedly, he poses an interesting query. And after thinking it over, I have a few ideas.
To begin, Indonesia would be best served by focusing first and foremost on continuing its economic ascent. Toward this end, it should increase its commitment to economic development, good governance, uprooting corruption, and containing and thwarting local terrorism. Indonesia also ought to build off its recent efforts to engage multilateral institutions by taking on more active and assertive roles in international and regional bodies. If it became especially ambitious, Indonesia could even assist in writing new rules and principles that govern the world order of the 21st century.
To be clear, all of the above mentioned things are interrelated. They would likely help Indonesia to keep jobs aplenty, bolster tourism, bring more respect and admiration, and allow it to pursue its interests effectively.
In my view, Indonesia should aim to operate something, though certainly not exactly, like Japan. This would loosely fit with where Indonesia’s elites want the country to go. Avoid trouble, be friends with foreign countries, seek to be a mediator when possible, and, most importantly, serve as an economic engine to the world.
By going the "economy first" route, Indonesia really can benefit in important ways. First, as has been written at length by scholars and analysts, money and power will likely flow from the West to the East, Asia in particular, during the 21st century. Arguably, this is already happening. What this means is that Asia is where jobs, investment, and growth are all shifting. Moreover, it’s becoming clear, especially with America’s so-called pivot to Asia, that the region is where the most important diplomatic jockeying and intrigues will take place. Combined, we a get a picture of countries, businesses, groups, and people falling over themselves to get a piece of Asia, because that’s where the action is at.
If Indonesia gets its domestic political and economic act together, it can piggyback off the success of the entire region. Investors, speculators, businesses, organizations, and countries already attuned to the rise of Asia and looking for more activity there could eventually move with gusto to Indonesia. Furthermore, for those actors preferring to deal with a vibrant, emerging democracy, or for those wary of abetting the rise of the Red Panda, Indonesia might eventually function as suitable regional alternative to China for international economic, business, and political affairs.
Second, Indonesia might be able to develop its own version of soft power. Remember, for the last several centuries, the West has held a commanding advantage in both material power and soft power. People worldwide have wanted to be like the West. They wanted to be wealthy, sure, but also live in a free and democratic society. Because China lacks these features, many scholars and analysts already speculate that China will never hold much soft power, and that the lack of it will hold the country back. Put simply, without significant soft power, China won’t be able to maximize its influence in the world.
Perhaps, but that says nothing about Indonesia. And in fact, if Indonesia goes about its foreign and domestic politics and economics in a effective manner, as the largest Muslim country in the world, it has a decent prospect at possessing considerable soft power. It can be a shining beacon to Asia but also to Muslim countries. In this way, Indonesia could be a major global player. It possesses the potential, even if it seems unlikely at the moment, to influence countries near and far away.
One more point on soft power: for country that lacks a really strong military and isn't a top-flight economy, holding a lot of soft power could enable Indonesia to punch above its weight, so to speak, in regional and international politics. Soft power could enable Jakarta to do more things than we would predict solely by looking at measures of Indonesia’s hard power.
Where does Indonesia’s military fit in this picture? Over the long-term it will likely be in Indonesia's best interests not to strive to have a very powerful military. I’m not suggesting that Indonesia slash its military budget. To the contrary, it might even make sense to make increases to it, though this should be in line with any expansion in Indonesia’s economy. The bottom line: just enough of a military presence to patrol borders, protect the homeland, participate in disaster relief, and take care of anti-terror operations. Indonesia should keep enough of a military presence to maintain security, peace and calm, but not so much as to throw gobs money down the military industrial complex drain. All this would do is further entrench the military’s role in Indonesia’s politics and economics.
In the end, though, this would require bargaining with and between the military. On the one hand, the military would have to be convinced, likely with various creative inducements, that it will no longer be the face of country to its citizens or to the rest of the world. And on the other hand, I envision some kind of informal accord between the navy and the army. The army has traditionally gotten the bulk of the military budget, and would likely resist changes to how it operates and the resources it procures. But in crafting a better, more economical foreign policy, the Indonesian government ought to begin the transition to emphasizing the role of the navy. Given the country’s location and its geography, it just makes the most sense. After all, it’s the navy that safeguards the country’s borders and waterways and trade routes, and can offer humanitarian assistance as needed. To make this transition work, the navy and army must agree that Indonesia’s naval forces and power should be strengthened and modernized.
There are a host of specific regional and international issues on which Indonesia will have to take position in the future. One such issue is the coming superpower competition between China and the U.S. By acting as a neutral friend to Beijing and Washington and seeking to be a mediator in their likely disputes, it’s possible that Indonesia can be a positive force, one that muffles the potential for a catastrophic great power conflict in Asia.
Of course, this is one among many ways that Indonesia won’t function like Japan. Japan has a strong alliance with the U.S.; Indonesia doesn’t want to pick sides. It wants to remain above the fray. Certainly, there are pitfalls with this approach. For instance, declining to pick a side risks drawing the ire of both China and America. The key for Indonesia is to remain consistent (both over time and in private and public statements) and communicate with clarity, so as to avoid uncertainty regarding Jakarta's intentions and actions. Additionally, if the region experiences bipolarization, as frequently happens in great power contests for power and influence, Indonesia could face external pressure to pick a side. It could even feel internal pressure to pick side should China or America appear on the verge of becoming the dominant player in Asia. What Indonesia must do is stick to its evolving interests and values. These include maintaining foreign policy independence, avoiding conflict, encouraging negotiation over violence, and supporting multilateral solutions.