Indonesia Unprepared as Great Powers Clash in Indo-Pacific

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk to their meeting at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on May 14, 2017. China touted on Sunday its new Silk Road as "a project of the century" at a summit highlighting its growing leadership on globalisation, but a North Korean missile test threatened to overshadow the event. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Kenzaburo FUKUHARA (Photo credit should read KENZABURO FUKUHARA/AFP via Getty Images)

FP – AUGUST 26, 2021, 12:47 PM

By Evan A. Laksmana, a senior research fellow at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Jakarta is Asia’s greatest geopolitical prize. But its foreign-policy reflexes are long outdated.

Indonesia could tilt the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific. It’s the largest archipelagic state in the world and sits at the heart of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The country’s growing economic power, tradition of regional leadership, and control over critical sea lanes seem to predestine it to be a strategic fulcrum in the era of U.S.-Chinese great-power competition.

Getting Jakarta to align with either Beijing or Washington therefore seems like a logical step in the unfolding geopolitical drama. Indonesia’s every move—from military exercises to vaccine diplomacy—is scrutinized through this lens. Depending on who you ask in Beijing or Washington, Indonesia’s choice seems obvious. One offers growth and prosperity, despite bullying the region. The other has built a global network of enduring security relationships, though its commitments are often doubtful, inconsistent, or come with strings attached.

So why won’t Indonesia pick one over the other? One reason is deep-seated mistrust. Indonesia does not believe one great power is inherently superior, whether economically, militarily, or morally. After all, throughout Indonesia’s strategic history, every great power has undermined Indonesia’s domestic order or acted contrary to its strategic interests.



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