international analysis and commentary

Indonesia: Southeast Asia’s Once and Future Regional Power?


For the latter half of the 20th century, after the United Nations officially recognized Indonesian independence in 1949, Indonesia dominated regional politics in Southeast Asia. But during its shift from authoritarianism to democracy, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Indonesia mostly lost that mantle of leadership. Now, with its democracy consolidated – though hardly perfect – and Indonesian leaders increasingly concerned about a range of regional threats, Jakarta is once again trying to lead Southeast Asia.



In the 1950s and 1960s, Indonesian president Sukarno was one of the leaders of the global non-aligned movement, a regional and international icon – albeit a president who did not have a deep commitment to democracy, and who mishandled the Indonesian economy. After Sukarno was ousted in the mid-1960s and longtime dictator Suharto took over, Indonesia’s regional clout only increased. The country was one of the founding members, in 1967, of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, then – and now – the most important regional organization in Southeast Asia.

As the most influential state within ASEAN, which was initially conceived as a bulwark against communist inroads into Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, Indonesia hosted the ASEAN Secretariat, which is still located in Jakarta. While some of the other ASEAN members, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, also had powerful, skillful leaders, like Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Indonesia remained the giant in the organization. By far the most populous state in Southeast Asia, it posted consistently high growth rates under Suharto, though the dictator and his family also allegedly siphoned vast sums of money from the state before their downfall. Within ASEAN, Indonesia could not fully dominate – the organization works by consensus – but its voice was usually the most powerful within ASEAN decision-making.

But in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Suharto regime collapsed, and Indonesia embarked upon a messy but ultimately successful transition to democracy. As the country struggled with a slowing economy, separatist rebellions, terrorist violence, and other challenges, Indonesian leaders focused most of their efforts domestically. Indonesian presidents Abdurrahman  Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri struggled with insurgencies in Aceh and Papua, with attacks by militant group Jemaah Islamiah in Bali, Jakarta, and other locations, and with endemic graft, among other challenges; Wahid ultimately was stripped of power as president in 2001 amidst a swirl of corruption allegations. At the same time as this domestic turmoil, Indonesian leaders seemed relatively unconcerned about several regional issues that would become more volatile later in the decade, including China’s rise, increasing regional economic integration, and growing tensions between major powers like Beijing and Washington.

So, Indonesia played a smaller role at ASEAN meetings and in regional policy-making during the early days of its democracy. Other Southeast Asian states – notably Singapore, a small city-state but a diplomatic giant close to the United States – took on the leadership mantle. This was especially true during the presidency of George W. Bush, whose administration enjoyed close ties with Singapore and paid relatively little attention to many other Southeast Asian states.


US President George W. Bush at the Asian Civilizations Museum duing his visit to Singapore in 2006


By the mid to late-2000s, Indonesia had slowly begun to flex its muscles again. Under a new president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the country enjoyed greater stability. The insurgency in Aceh was resolved, and sectarian violence seemed to be diminishing. Economic growth picked up, with annual growth rates stabilizing above five percent. Indonesia held free and contested elections, and Yudhoyono (and outsiders) touted the country as an example of democratization to other developing nations.


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Trying to take a regional lead on democracy promotion, Yudhoyono’s administration in 2008 established the Bali Democracy Forum, a talk shop designed to put a high profile on democracy in Asia, and share ideas about how to foster democracy. Under Yudhoyono, the country also moved closer to the United States, and his administration wooed foreign investment and began to slowly lead on regional and global trade integration. However, late in Yudhoyono’s second term, his administration backed off some of its approach to regional trade and investment, in a climate of growing economic nationalism in Indonesia.


Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, right, greets Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah at the Bali Democracy Forum in 2013


Now, since the initial election of current president Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, in 2014, Indonesia has attempted to more fully regain its status as a major regional power. Although Jokowi had little foreign policy experience before election to the presidency – he had been mayor of the city of Solo and then governor (essentially mayor) of Jakarta – and made domestic policy his initial priority, his administration has increasingly attempted to stake out a vision for Indonesia in regional affairs. While Jokowi, who was re-elected comfortably this year, continues to publicly prioritize issues like inequality, social welfare programs, and improving Indonesian infrastructure, many in his administration, and in the Indonesian armed forces, have become increasingly concerned about Beijing’s assertive approach to the South China Sea and other regional waters.

Although Indonesia does not have as sizable a South China Sea dispute with Beijing as other Southeast Asian states like Vietnam or the Philippines, Chinese statements that Jakarta and Beijing have overlapping claims in seas near the Natuna Islands has infuriated Indonesian leaders. Jakarta believes those waters are Indonesian waters. In response to these Chinese claims, the Indonesian armed forces have held large exercises near the Natuna Islands, for instance.

Meanwhile, in both his first and second term, Jokowi has empowered the armed forces. In the Suharto era, the armed forces were the most powerful actor in the country, but their abuses alienated the population, and their role was diminished somewhat in the early democratic period. Jokowi, however, has surrounded himself with current and former generals, and given the armed forces more control over domestic affairs. Although this approach has major downsides – it runs the risk of encouraging future abuses, and blurring the lines of civilian command – the armed forces also push Indonesian leaders for a more assertive regional approach to China, to maritime security, and to other issues.

At the same time, under Jokowi Jakarta has pushed ASEAN, as an organization, to enunciate a vision for its role in a future Asia, at a time when the United States, Japan, and other major regional powers are laying out their own visions for the future of Asian security. The latest U.S. strategy, a vision for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, jibes in large part with Japan’s approach. Other countries, like Australia and even France, also have released visions for regional security.


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So, over the past year, leading Indonesian officials prodded other ASEAN officials, at ASEAN meetings, to collaborate on an ASEAN regional security vision. This outlook was finally released at an ASEAN summit last month. It hews closely to Indonesian ideas for regional security, showing that in some ways Jakarta has gained back some of the leadership role in Southeast Asia from Singapore and other states. The vision seeks to reinforce ASEAN’s centrality in regional security.

Yet even after successfully getting ASEAN to adopt this vision, it will be hard for Indonesia to ever return to the dominance it once enjoyed in the Cold War era. Other Southeast Asian states, from Vietnam to Singapore, have become more powerful regionally, and less willing to defer to Indonesia. Indonesia still sometimes struggles to figure out how to balance ties with China and the United States.

Jokowi has sometimes advocated for greater investment and participation in regional trade integration, which is reshaping the region, but more often he has defaulted to a position of economic nationalism. Other Asian states are instead taking the lead on pushing regional economic integration. Indonesia is powerful again, but it still is not punching its weight in regional security or economics.