Indonesia and Multipolarity



Indonesian media is opinionated, just as any media is worldwide, but it’s a lot more reserved when it comes to the US-China competition in the Asia-Pacific region. While it’s possible to find editorials that support one side over the other, or rather, advocate for Indonesia to either get involved on the US’ side or pragmatically stay out of the competition, for the most part Indonesian media seems to take a neutral wait-and-see approach. This is a direct result of the government’s decision to try and bide its time for as long as possible in balancing between both of these Great Powers, though it can quickly change on the flick of a dime if Jakarta decides to ally with the US. The best that can happen in the long run is for the archipelagic nation to indefinitely maintain its present policy and avoid the US’ enticements in being drawn into the emerging “China Containment Coalition”, but even the slightest change in media narrative towards this position could indicate that greater forces have already impacted on the behind-the-scenes situation in the country and that Indonesia might be on the cusp of an Indian-like pivot towards the US. 


The economic profile of the former Dutch East Indies makes for an intriguing case study. Citing data from The Observatory for Economic Complexity, which has provided all of the prior economic data used in the study thus far, Indonesia’s main export partners are Japan, China, the US, and Singapore, while its primary import ones are China, Singapore, and Japan. Looking at this information, Indonesia’s international trade network is a hybrid mix of multipolar and unipolar partners, with China representing the former and the US, Japan, and Singapore representing the latter. To refer to what was written in Part I, multipolarity does not mean “Orthodox Anti-Americanism” or “anti-any unipolar country”, so it’s possible – and preferred in certain cases depending on a state’s geographic location – to establish pragmatic economic cooperation with select unipolar forces just like China has done with the US. That being said, what’s critical to note about Indonesia and its trading partners is that the country is almost evenly split in half between multipolar (China) and unipolar (US-led) forces, and in such a case, Washington will obviously be tempted to try to pull Jakarta out of its contested position and firmly into the unipolar fold. 

This is where the TPP comes into play, which is envisaged to tie the US, Japanese, and Singaporean economies more tightly together in the coming future, among other regional and trans-Pacific states. The importance of this forthcoming development on Indonesia can’t be overstated, since it will mean that its main unipolar trading partners will all be part of the new bloc, thus thereby dividing its economic networks between China and the TPP. In a broader perspective and looking at the most recent figures, this will lead to $62.4 billion of exports going to the TPP compared to only $20.8 billion to China, while $41 billion of imports will come from the bloc as opposed to $32.5 from Beijing. Perhaps for this reason, President Joko Widodo (popularly known as “Jokowi”) controversially proclaimed in October 2015 during a visit to Washington that Indonesia will eventually join the TPP, though crucially without setting any timeframe for when this might occur. It could be that the Jokowi was seeking to appease his American ally and deflect overbearing pressure from it for the time being, or it could be taken to denote his sincere desire to formally align Indonesia’s economy with the TPP. In either case, it’s a disturbing development that indicates that part of the Indonesian establishment is at least contemplating doing away with its present contested status and shifting towards the unipolar world. 

It should be remembered that there are three main iterations of multipolarity – economic, institutional, and geopolitical – and that by moving Indonesia closer towards economic and institutional unipolarity through the TPP, it might only be a matter of time before the island nation also begins applying geopolitical unipolarity in “containing” China. If Indonesia joined the TPP, then it would in effect be engaging in a unipolar pivot just as decisive as the one that India is carrying out via the “Logistic Service Agreement” (LSA), both of which have severe consequences vis-à-vis China, albeit in different forms (Indonesia’s is economic, India’s is military). 


Indonesia was one of the founders of the Old Cold War-era Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and loyally practiced this policy until the 1965 de-facto coup against Sukarno turned the country into an American outpost in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is once more following its historic NAM (or as it’s described in the present research, contested) policy, but it’s uncertain how long it can sustain doing so, especially in the face of heavy US pressure to join the TPP. If Jakarta bravely refrains from ever joining the bloc, despite giving verbal assurances that it will (which might just have been a time-buying maneuver), then it could retain its strategic independence and obtain all of the dividends from its NAM/contested-state policies, but should it accede to the unipolar format, then it would likely sometime thereafter become a regional economic competitor to China and be pushed to escalate its newfound rivalry to military “containment” proportions. Thus, everything hinges on whether Indonesia officially joins the TPP or not. 


Despite decades of state suppression over what really happened, Indonesians are gradually becoming aware of the US’ role in aiding the 1965-66 nationwide killings of an estimated half a million “suspected communists”. Full disclosure over what happened during that dark time will probably never happen, but the best that people can hope for is closure in learning as much as possible about the event and never forgetting how the US turned Indonesians against one another in helping to organize one of the greatest post-World War II crimes against humanity. If the truth about the situation becomes widespread and common knowledge, then it could have a strong effect in changing the average Indonesian’s perception about the US and leading to them challenging the ‘wisdom’ of their country’s prospective anti-Chinese tilt towards Washington. 

For the time being, however, it seems like regular citizens are much too preoccupied with developing their country and making ends meet, so it’s not known to what degree they’re even interested in Indonesia’s “counterbalancing” strategy between the US and China, nor how deeply affected they’d be in learning the truth about the 1965-66 events. Additionally, it remains to be seen to what degree knowledge about American complicity in their country’s largest state-run killings would inspire them to actively resist Jakarta’s prospective TPP membership, or if they passively attribute everything that happened to former Indonesian and American administrations and don’t see any continuum into the present. If that’s the case, then the grassroots masses might be easily manipulated into only seeing the marketed economic “advantages” of the TPP and thus inoculated from the geopolitical dangers that this risky deal presents in the long term. 

Under those circumstances, and depending on the extent to which the national media can succeed in manipulating the masses, it might be very difficult for Indonesians to resist the TPP and their government’s possible unipolar shift, and they might frighteningly welcome it under the false pretenses of “economic prosperity”. It’s therefore important for observers to find a way to measure how strong societal caution is towards formally initiating an on-paper economic alliance with the US (TPP) and whether Indonesians can be easily misled by their media into only seeing the perceived economic “benefits” of the deal at the expense of the geopolitical risks. Until that research is commenced and published, it’s difficult to ascertain the position of the Indonesian grassroots towards the unipolar-multipolar question. 


A quick look at the map dictates that Indonesia has all of the characteristics of the ultimate pivot country, but one which could – at least theoretically – indefinitely maintain its contested position in the New Cold War and maximize all of the resultant benefits of balancing between China, the US, and even India. Indonesia’s location is such that it is the literal gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, thus making its waterways, in one way or another, the crucial paths through which global maritime commerce must pass in transiting these two bodies of water. Left to its currently neutral policies, Jakarta has the very real and feasible potential of balancing between Beijing and New Delhi, and it doesn’t have to get caught up in India’s latest anti-Chinese military policies unless it fatefully makes the choice to do so. 

As regards the US, Indonesia will always have some sort of relations with Washington owing simply to the large amount of trade between the two sides, to say nothing of the Pentagon’s heavy naval presence that it’s redirecting to the region as part of the Pivot to Asia. Furthermore, like the author wrote in a three-part article series for Katehon late last year (Part I, Part II, and Part III), Indonesia satisfies many Hybrid War criteria in being a hodgepodge of separate (sometimes conflicting) identities, and US strategists are obviously well aware of that and will predictably use it as a lever of negative pressure against Jakarta. Indonesia will therefore never completely turn its back on the US, nor should it in fact (recalling the possibility of pragmatic win-win cooperation between unipolar and multipolar states), but it also doesn’t have to bend to Washington’s will. It’s entirely possible that Indonesia could reject the TPP, continue limited naval cooperation with Washington, and embrace all of the Great Powers that are economically converging over it – China, the US, Japan, and India. 

Relatedly, pragmatic engagement with China does not mean “submitting” to it, no matter how preconditioned some regional populations are to conflating these two separate concepts with one another. Indonesia has all of the characteristics that allow it to enter into a friendly economic competition with China that contributes to a stronger and more diversified multipolar world in general, but it again comes down to the intent of Jakarta’s “deep state” (permanent intelligence-military-diplomatic bureaucracy) decision makers in retaining positive and mutually beneficial relations with China. If geopolitical pressures are pushed onto the country, such as the internal Hybrid War ones that the US could spark or combined American-Indian lobbying to “contain” China, then Jakarta could quickly flip from a contested country to a unipolar one in aggressively confronting China on the US and its allies’ behalf. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it’s a distinct worry that the multipolar world should legitimately fret about and take constructive steps in averting. 

Political System:

Similar to India, Indonesia has come to adapt a political model that is very closely related to Western Democracy. This is only a recent development and didn’t occur until the “Reformation” period after Suharto, but it’s taken root in the world’s most populous Muslim country and can be said to have succeeded in transforming the existing political system. Jokowi’s election in 2014 bore some hallmarks of an American presidential campaign, once more putting it in league with India’s 2014 election of Modi and drawing yet another comparison between these two pivot states. What Indonesia needs to be careful of, though, is that it doesn’t emulate Western Democracies too closely in the sense of repeating the pitfalls of identity politics. If the diverse nation becomes infected with the US-supported idea of “political movements for all”, then the national unity that has been painstakingly preserved in the immediate tumult of the post-Suharto era could be irreparably damaged and the country could splinter along geo-identity lines. This, of course, would only be beneficial to the US in weakening the central authorities and manipulating the peripheral eastern regions for its own strategic benefit (whether as Chinese “containment” bastions or pressure points against Jakarta), but it’s entirely possible that this scenario could be actualized given the structural vulnerabilities inherent to Indonesia’s Western Democratic system. 


The country’s economic elite appear to be split between China and the TPP countries, and the rise of India as one of Indonesia’s upcoming partners will only complicate this dynamic. In the present framework, the economic elite don’t have to choose an “either-or” approach, and they can pragmatically interact with as many or as few partners as they’d like. In fact, that’s actually what’s preferable at this point, but the US will try to change all of this as it seeks to ‘poach’ Indonesia into the TPP and turn it against China. While India is not yet a major factor, it very well could be in the near future, both in terms of its ‘overland’ trade via the Trilateral Highway then across the Malacca Strait to Indonesia and through its much more direct maritime links to the archipelago, and this could heavily play to Washington’s advantage if it succeeds in keeping New Delhi on the unipolar leash. 

The political elite are more difficult to figure out since it’s hard for foreigners to get information about them and their positions towards international issues. It can be assumed that a share of them follow the same pattern as their economic counterparts because of the close interconnection between the two categories of elites, but it’s likely that there are also a group of them that don’t follow this paradigm. Until more research is done in this direction, it’s hard to tell one way or another how Indonesia’s political elite feel towards the US and China, but clues can be gathered by observing the mainstream media positions towards these countries and watching for any moves that Jakarta takes closer to or further away from the TPP. Even then, however, a strong decision in either direction could lead to fierce parliamentary debate due to Indonesia’s mostly Western Democratic system, so that event could cause politicians to publicly ‘show their colors’ on this issue, which would then make it easier for observers to assess the overall state of unipolar-multipolar influence on the political elite. 


Indonesia’s military has historically played a guiding role in the country’s politics, seen most obviously through the murderous events of 1965-66 and Suharto’s de-facto military coup against Sukarno. In the immediate post-Suharto aftermath, it sought to stabilize the situation in the eastern provinces and prevent identity killings, though in some cases it was also accused of standing aside and allowing them to go on. In the current time, now that order has been restored through the “Reformation” and the country has embraced most aspects of Western Democracy, the role of the military is thought to have substantially declined but not to have been done away with totally. After all, the last election saw Jokowi compete against a former high-ranking military man, and the popular electoral difference between the two was only around 6.5%. In the present geopolitical conditions of the US’ Pivot to China and the assemblage of a “China Containment Coalition”, the Indonesian military might once more return to its traditionally important role in influencing the state and take on a premier leadership position, even if this is unannounced and largely unseen before the public eye. 

When analyzing which way the Indonesian military leans towards in the unipolar-multipolar divide, it’s worthwhile to bring up an underreported news event from early April. The Indonesian Armed Forces declared that they will be sending air defense units to the country’s islands in the South China Sea. Though Jakarta has undisputed ownership over this territory, it’s symbolic that it would choose to send such forces there at this specific time. Obviously, the Indonesian establishment appears to be partially pandering to American behind-the-scenes pressure in making an effort to “contain” China, despite not wanting to do so in any substantial way. Thus, it could be that Indonesia sought to “kill two birds with one stone” and appease the Americans without scaring the Chinese, hence the dispatch of its air defense system to the undisputed islands, though it’s clear to all observers which forces the system is presumably intended to guard against. There’s no way of telling whether Jakarta notified Beijing of this in advance and explained that it’s doing this only to symbolically placate the Americans for the time being or if it did so without any advance notification at all, in which the latter case would reveal that Indonesia might be bracing for a full-spectrum anti-Chinese unipolar pivot. 

Final Determination:

Indonesia is a contested state that could have a very promising and stable future if it resists the US’ pressure to “contain” China and continues to equally engage all Great Powers, but its destiny ultimately comes down to whether or not it decides to join the TPP. Joining the economic pact would formally tie Jakarta in with Washington’s web of “containment” alliances that it’s weaving all throughout the Asia-Pacific, while wisely remaining outside of it this framework would permit the country to retain its strategic flexibility and not be seen as an American anti-Chinese proxy. For the time being, then, Indonesia is a “contested” state that’s still equally “balancing” between the unipolar and multipolar blocs, though it’s unknown exactly for how long it can maintain this policy before the US forces it to choose one way or the other.