Book Review: 'Indonesia’s Rise, Seeking Regional and Global Roles'

17 Mar, 2015    ·   4851

Amb Navrekha Sharma reviews Dr Vibhanshu Shekhar's latest book on Indonesia

Vibhanshu Shekhar’s book, ‘Indonesia’s Rise’, is an account of the country’s role and international standing, nearly two decades after Soeharto’s dictatorship and the advent of democracy. It is easy today to forget that in the late 1990s, Indonesia was roiling under multiple crises and that the world had virtually written her obituary. Instead, not only did she merely survive, she thrived. By ruthlessly discarding the baggage of East Timor, transforming her constitution and reforming her banking and financial institutions, she soon resumed her position as ASEAN’s de facto leader. The credit for this goes to the courage and resilience of her people and the wisdom of her leadership.

Shekhar’s book takes this background as a “given” but for the Indian reader who may know very little about Indonesia, it is advisable to bear these facts in mind.

As the world’s largest Muslim democracy, with a one trillion dollar consumption driven economy and a geographical expanse of 3000 miles straddling important choke points between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Indonesia is already an important economic power with reasonable expectations of giving it a global player status in the medium term. Behind her international credibility lies years of trust capital earned through mediating and bridge-building in various conflict zones in Southeast Asia.  In meticulous detail Shekhar tells of how she has been of support through the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) to developing countries (including to Palestine in the cause of which she has refused to recognise Israel to this day) and to the UN as one of the world’s largest contributors of peacekeeping  troops. Additionally, Indonesia has contributed a host of constructive ideas on disarmament, UNSC Reform, climate change etc. Her claim to recognition with a permanent seat in a reformed and expanded UNSC is, under the circumstances, not unreasonable. President Abdurrahman Wahid had supported India’s candidature in the UNSC during his State visit of 2000; unfortunately, India did not reciprocate the gesture.

Shekhar reminds us however, that there remain persistent domestic weaknesses that could become “spoilers” in Indonesia’s road to success. Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans had spelled these out as: “a shaky anti-corruption drive, religious freedom under duress and continuing general governmental weakness.” Each of these weaknesses, including the perception of increased corruption under democracy, the rise of Islamic sectarianism (Sunni versus Shia) and the paralysis of governance under former Indonesian President Susilo Yudhoyono’s brand of coalition politics are examined carefully and in detail by Shekhar.  His conclusion is dour: “a weak power internally with no external Force Projection cannot be a rising power for long.”

My own prognostication is not so pessimistic. Indeed, if one keeps Indonesia’s record of rising from the ashes in mind (not once but twice, the first being in 1965 when the regime changed from Soekarno to Soeharto via an anti-Communist blood bath) the country clearly possesses admirable resources of resilience, including the ability and foresight to plan for the long duree. Despite widespread  corruption and mis-governance (that caused much disillusionment with democracy and a yearning for the  “good old days” of dictatorship when jobs were secure and inequality less visible), it is noteworthy that the people of Indonesia  recently  voted in for the first time a  President with a non-elite background. By doing so, they both reaffirmed Indonesia’s faith in democracy and deepened it as well.  

One will have to see how the new President, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), handles tricky domestic issues but by sharply cutting fuel subsidies as one of his first actions after assuming Presidency. He has already demonstrated courageously that a popular leader does not have to indulge in cheap populism.

In 1967, following  the anti-Communist coup and Soekarno’s downfall, Indonesia abandoned her militant posture and went all out to woo the neighbours by cutting back ruthlessly her defense expenditure to under 1% of GDP. Even today, although defense expenses have arisen, the figure in absolute terms is lower than those of Singapore’s and Malaysia’s. Obviously, Cold War configurations had guaranteed her external security but today, in the post-Cold War scenario, the absence of a strong military and a strong navy in particular, does indicate supreme confidence in multi-polarity and diplomacy as a method of reducing tension and securing peace in what is known to be a volatile maritime neighbourhood. Is this confidence justified? 

Shekhar tells us that Indonesia seeks to position herself as a global “swing state;” a partner to those looking to balance China’s growing power. She is careful to maintain nothing but the most cordial (and economically beneficial) of relationships with China herself with whom she has developed a dense web of cross-cutting relationships across the board (unlike with India, with whom her engagement has increased but remains limited in scope).

While EAS and the three-fold ASEAN community are the two most important pillars of Indonesia’s Regional Diplomacy, China continues to hamper the EAS’s functioning by disallowing discussion of South China Sea issues. Tension levels have been rising since 2010, the year China pronounced the South China Sea as an area of her core concern and started acting belligerently in other ways too. Countries that were earlier willing to bet on China’s “Peaceful Rise” have grown anxious, especially since US President Barack Obama failed to show up at a few ASEAN Summits after he promised to “pivot” to Asia. Indonesia, with deft shuttle diplomacy, was able to patch together a Joint Communique after the 2012 failure to adopt one; but cracks in the ASEAN are beginning to cause her acute embarrassment.

Shekhar rightly points out that while the stakes are rising in the regional checkerboard, strategic space for maneuverability and diplomacy is shrinking. If China remains uncooperative in the EAS and the US continues to be unpredictable, former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelagawa’s “Dynamic Equilibrium” strategy, aimed to promote an open, inclusive and multilateral regional cooperative architecture for the world’s potential major stakeholders to operate in a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific environment could unravel. What then would be Indonesia’s options? Shekhar leaves us with the question, but does not provide an answer.

Another interesting chapter is about Indonesia’s strategic culture, which sheds light on her world view.  Indonesia’s simultaneous sense of openness and of vulnerability derived from her archipelagic geography and tumultuous post-colonial history is well known, but there are other lesser known   concepts deriving from her culture, some of them of Sanskrit origin. The concept of Mandala is still used by the Department of Foreign Affairs to her foreign relations. Countries of the world appear in concentric circles of proximity with Indonesia at the center. ASEAN countries are located in the first Mandala and China in the second one; but India doesn’t figure at all. Shekhar feels that India, because of her geographical proximity etc., should fit into the second Mandala along with Australia but I would be less sanguine about this presumption as clearly, geography has very little to do with the concept.

Another concept, Bebas dan Actif coined by former Indonesian Vice President Mohd. Hatta (who was a friend of former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s), is still used by the foreign office to describe the essential thrust of Indonesia’s foreign policy. It means free and active and is a term the Indonesians prefer to Non Alignment as it sounds more active and positive.

The chapter on Indo-Indonesian relations states that Indians are much more aware today of the strategic Importance of Indonesia. Her role as mediator between Islam and the West, her importance as a role model for West Asia following the Arab Spring and her efforts to disseminate democratic best practices through the Bali Democratic Forum have raised Indonesia’s status in the World. The chapter draws upon an interview the author had with Natelagawa in 2012 in which he mentioned the need for India and Indonesia to develop a global agenda together as the two poorest countries in the G20.

Although bilateral relations are growing well in trade and investment particularly (also to a lesser extent in defence), my concern is and has always been that they are too narrowly focused and also somewhat skewed: Indians are increasingly investing in Indonesia with hardly any reciprocal investment from that country into India – which is not healthy. Although the shared cultural past is regularly acknowledged by both sides, the people-to-people dimension still eludes the relationship. Without that, there is scope for rhetoric but little of substance. The media is least engaged in the relationship. I was hoping to find some changes for the better reflected in Shekhar’s book but was disappointed.

On the whole, I found the book “Indonesia’s Rise” by Vibhanshu Shekhar immensely readable and instructive. As one of the very few books on Indonesia written by an Indian scholar and a competent one at that, I would wholeheartedly recommend it for wider circulation and reading. The index of references is excellent and worth taking a look at.