Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, columnist and author of “The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy” and the “The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.”
When India’s then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was asked in the 1950s why Southeast Asian nations were designated as Category C in his country’s foreign policy, he reportedly replied: “Do you gentlemen wish to become friendly with Coca-Cola governments?”
More than half a century later, few powers — including India — would dare dismiss Southeast Asia. And yet, even in our hyper-globalized world, the region remains largely unknown to the outside world — the international media’s infatuation with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi notwithstanding.
Perhaps none more so than Indonesia. Home to almost 300 million and a trillion-dollar economy, Indonesia is arguably the world’s largest invisible nation. Somehow, Indonesia’s dynamic and divisive leaders, sumptuous and colorful cuisine, contentious and gripping politics, its prolific diplomats and writers, have never managed to truly capture the world’s attention.
Over the coming years and decades, however, the world should begin to pay more attention to this rising global power that is already shaping the future of the Indo-Pacific order.
Indonesia was not always an invisible nation. Its vivacious founder, Sukarno, was a larger-than-life figure who played a central role in the establishment of the global Non-Aligned Movement. A true visionary, he tirelessly sought to unite the deeply fractious archipelago. Then came the 1965 coup and the bloody massacres that followed until the so-called New Order had established itself.
Indonesia was in the grip of Suharto — a “mediocre tyrant” in the words of Indonesia scholar Benedict Anderson — for three decades as the soft-spoken former general oversaw a period of economic stability and political calm. Compared to its troubled yet more colorful neighbors, Indonesia was suddenly humdrum.
From the 1970s onward, Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew and his Malaysian archrival Mahathir Mohamad became emblematic of an assertive, self-confident Southeast Asia, while decadent dictators such as the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos and his spendthrift first lady, Imelda, became favorite international media targets.
“Southeast Asia has been a costly reminder,” Stanford’s Donald Emmerson lamented in the late-1980s, “that the significance of a country and the attention it receives are separate matters.”
By the turn of the century, after B.J. Habibie succeeded Suharto, political reforms and a democratic opening turned Indonesia into a more exciting place, ending its brutal occupation of East Timor as well as the notorious dwi fungsi, or dual-function, system which institutionalized a role for the military in politics.
The political reform program, which became known as reformasi, reached an improbable peak under retired Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who in 2004 became the first directly elected Indonesian president. Achieving what neighboring Thailand and Myanmar have repeatedly failed to, SBY turned a deeply politicized military into a professional army. Democratization progressed without sacrificing economic growth, catapulting Indonesia into the ranks of the Group of 20.
By 2014, a robust grassroots movement backed by a youthful progressive middle class overcame Indonesia’s deeply entrenched oligarchs to install former small-town Mayor Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, as the country’s second directly elected president.
That does not mean Indonesia has come to terms with its bloody past, especially the mass atrocities of the 1960s. Neither can the disappointment of Jokowi’s progressive base be denied.
In addition to endorsing a Duterte-style war on narcotics, Jokowi has embraced fundamentalist religious groups, appointed a notorious human rights violator to his cabinet, rolled back anti-corruption initiatives in the name of rapid infrastructure development and appointed far too many generals to oversee the response to COVID-19.
Still, it is hard to understate Indonesia’s remarkable transformation within a single generation. Now a bastion of socio-economic dynamism, Indonesia’s middle class is not only growing, but it is also better educated, producing a new generation of world-class writers such as Eka Kurniawan and entrepreneurs such as Gojek founder Nadiem Makarim.
With Jokowi’s right-hand Luhut Pandjaitan coordinating a national development program that includes the construction of a new $31 billion capital city and an electric car battery production hub to serve the region, Indonesia is on track to go from a predominantly resource-exporting country to a knowledge-based economy. Crucially, Jokowi has sought to make economic growth more inclusive.
By 2050, Indonesia is poised to become the world’s fourth-largest economy, behind China, India and the U.S., enabling it to play a far more constructive role on the global stage.
Indonesia’s strategic ace is its coterie of skillful diplomats. Among them, foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who not only played a key role in resolving border disputes between Thailand and Cambodia but also contributed to the conceptualization of a stable and inclusive Indo-Pacific order.
Veteran ambassador Dino Djalal has contributed to the dramatic transformation in Indonesia’s increasingly warm relations with the West, personally establishing the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia, the largest foreign policy-focused nongovernment organization of its kind in the world.
Current Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has dramatically stepped up her country’s global footprint, including direct involvement in peace process negotiations from Israel-Palestine conflict to post-war Afghanistan and, more recently, to post-coup Myanmar.
Not a Coca-Cola government by any measure, Indonesia is yet to receive the global recognition it deserves despite decades of democratic opening and sustained economic growth. Regardless, the world’s greatest invisible nation will become a pivotal force in shaping the future of the Indo-Pacific order and beyond.