Indonesia: New ‘middle power’ and target of terrorist actions?

After Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to democratic rule in 1998, the country is said to be the third largest democracy in the world, next to India and the United States. The former East-West rivalry has gone and problems now range from international terrorism to uncertainties in the world’s most vibrant region: the Asia-Pacific.

Regarding current issues like the territory dispute in the South China Sea, Indonesia has demonstrated a genuine desire to become a more influential player beyond its national borders, in-between global superpowers such as China and the USA. What defines a country as a ‘middle power’? What is Indonesia’s key role in regional and global conflicts and what security risks does the country undertake for keeping this position?


Indonesia as ‘middle power’ – Marching to the American drum?

To generate a new identity for its foreign policy and diplomacy the term ‘middle power’ was first used for Indonesia within the post-cold war era during the 1990s. After the so called Reformasi, which has brought an increasing awareness of the rule of law, Indonesia became a stronger country, renewed by democracy and the willingness to change from a top-down to a bottom-up approach. When in 2004, the first democratically elected president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono came to power, the country “expanded democratic political freedoms, improved economic conditions, and enhanced social participation in public affairs;” (Nowaczynski, 2013). With him a path toward a bigger role for Indonesia in the global community was paved. Facing neo-liberal globalization Indonesia’s achievements in political reform, its size and recent economic success, signal ‘middle power’ potential. But to be regarded as ‘middle power’ a country needs more than just the ability to maintain a certain level of economic sovereignty, “Indonesia needs to ‘act’ as a ‘middle power’” (Darmosumatro, 2013, 3). If this has been done on many edges in the recent decade, can present day Indonesia call itself a ‘middle power’?

The word ‘middle power’ cannot be clearly defined but it is mostly used by scholars to describe a state’s interaction, role and significance within the international system as well as on whether a state imagines itself as a small, middle, or great power. ‘Middle power diplomacy’ is not based on overwhelming national power such as military power and economic force, but is characterized by having a strong influence and achieving high involvement in international affairs. Bernhard Wood (1990) defines this behavior as a nation’s “tendency to pursue multilateral solutions to international problems, their tendency to embrace compromise positions in international disputes and their tendency to embrace notions of good international citizenship to guide their diplomacy” (20). Cooper, Higgott and Nossal introduced a category scheme that classifies a country as a geographic, normative, positional or behavioural ‘middle power’ (1994, 24–25).

Indonesia took a leading role two years ago in resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea conflict. As the United States seemed unable to formulate an effective strategy due to China’s growing influence, Indonesia has taken a key role in defining this issue. “Through proactive and nonaligned diplomacy, middle powers may be able to influence the rise of China in ways that the United States cannot” (Gilley, 2012). Indonesia functions as catalyst or as moderator “planning, convening, and hosting … formative meetings, setting priorities for future activity and drawing up rhetorical declarations and manifestos” and could therefore be stated as ‘behavioural’ middle power using its soft power(Cooper, Higgott and Nossal, 1994, 24–25).

“Indonesia is now an outward-looking country very much eager to shape regional and international order and intent on having our voice heard. The point is clear: internationalism will be very much part of Indonesia’s dynamism in the next five years.” Foreign policy was a high priority to former president Yudhoyono as you can see in his USINDO speech, given in Washington DC in 2005. Under his presidency, Indonesia’s new identity as the third largest democracy in the world was established, bilateral relations improved and the US made the decision to not only normalize military cooperation, but also to intensify its defense and antiterrorism cooperation with the country. Especially after 9/11 Indonesia became a very useful partner for the United States; indeed it “gladly took the role as a bridge between the US and the Muslim world” by helping to introduce a solution to the “Iraq problem” (Nasir, 2009,101 f).

On the one hand, proponents argue that Indonesia is a ‘middle power’ country on the rise. “It is expected to become a very influential player on the Asia-Pacific stage by 2025. Indonesia possesses the right conditions to succeed: a huge market of 240 million that allows for economies of scale, rich natural resources, the largest sea territory in the world, and a hardworking and creative people” (Nasir, 2009, 143). On the other hand, critics counter that Indonesia cannot be considered as ‘middle power’ as it still faces a lot of domestic problems such as corruption and since 2002 it has become the target of terrorist attacks (“yet, the threat of terrorism from separatist and religious extremist insurgent groups still remains prevalent” (Nowaczynski, 2013)).

Drawn closer to world powers with which it shares democratic principles, namely the US, India and the European Union, Indonesia also maintains excellent ties with China (Nasir, 2009, 143). In this context the term “KIA” was born, reflecting Korea, Indonesia and Australia’s roles as the new ‘middle powers’ creating a new order in Asia-Pacific (Parello-Plesner, 2009). This can be illustrated on the following example: In 2013 Washington failed to win China for cooperation in the Proliferation Security Initiative which aims to control the transfer of nuclear weapons between countries. In the same year, the G-20 working group (all three ‘KIA’ countries are members) gained prominence in recent efforts to tackle global crisis by reforming the international financial system. This group was led by Australia and Turkey; both considered ‘middle powers’ (Darmosumarto, 2009).

‘Middle powers’ come in use when ‘superpowers’ need a moderating element in between, as their direct interaction would be followed by mistrust and growing tensions towards one another: “Indonesia is aware of dramatic changes taking place within East Asia and has therefore been more engaged in shaping the emerging regional architecture in the region. (…) it recognises the importance for the region to accommodate the rise of China and India, and manage the relationship among the major power” (Sukma, 2011, 22).

‘Middle powers’ and regionalism

‘Middle powers’ can be identified as being part of regional groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Economic Cooperation Organisation (Ping, 2005, 11). “As a reaction to the ongoing globalization, including transnational threats such as terrorism, global warming or refugee mobility, regionalism appears as a strategy to be widely recognized as a ‘middle power’” (Dupont, 2001, 13-32, 228-239). Agreements like ASEAN or the EU are expected to offer ‘middle power’ states better access to power and influence within the international system. Indonesia developed important defense relations with members of ASEAN, which become more and more necessary for maintaining its regional stability. Moreover, “Indonesia has developed close bilateral defense cooperation with Malaysia and Singapore, including joint military exercises, coordinated patrol in the Malacca Straits, provision of combat training facilities, and also cooperation in the defence industrial sector” (Sukma, 2011, 21). Indonesia believes that the cooperation among ASEAN establishments in addressing non-traditional security problems, such as emergency relief operations and piracy, could contribute to greater mutual understanding and confidence among regional countries (Sukma, 2011, 24).

Indonesia’s security implications as regional power: corruption, terrorism and economic stagnation

With Indonesia’s rise to a regional power, it increasingly has to deal with more complex security challenges. Its developments in the economic and political sphere provide the capacity and serve moral high ground not only for international players but also for extremist terrorist’s interests:
“Since the Bali bombing in October 2002 that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, Indonesia has suffered a number of serious terrorist attacks, including the bombings of J.W. Marriot Hotel in August 2003, the Australian Embassy in November 2004, and the second terrorist attack on Bali in October 2005. Even though Indonesia’s attempts to combat terrorism have resulted in significant successes, terrorism continues to pose a formidable threat as demonstrated by the ability of terrorist groups to launch another deadly attack on J.W. Marriot Hotel and Ritz Carlton Hotel in July 2009.” (Sukma, 2011, 5)

Terrorism is not the only security implication Indonesia had to undertake for its rise to a regional player: Threats can be divided into three major sets of security problems, namely internal security challenges, NTS (Natrindo Telepon Seluler) and transnational threats as well as external security challenges (Sukma, 2011).
Internal problems include secessionist threats, communal and religious violence such as the rebelliousness of the province of Aceh and of course corruption explained through economic conditions (poverty, unemployment). Due to its fast development, Indonesia achieved large economic growth combined with a high level of corruption which can lead into a downward spiral. The current problem of corruption mostly appeared when Indonesia faced the challenges of recovering from economic crisis of 1997. “Many factories and offices had shut down, adding to the unemployment rate. Inflation led to a much higher cost of living which people could not afford. The number of poor was rising” (Nasir, 2009, p.80). Corruption appears where economic data “produces uneven income distribution, inefficiency, unfairness, and economic stagnation. (…) These forces become justification and reinforcement for corruption as illegal gains outweigh incentives to combat corruption, organized crime, or terrorism” (Nowaczcki, 2013).

In 2005 the TNI Commander General Endriartono Sutarto addressed that “the most dangerous threat comes from other countries” such as natural disasters and maritime security territorial disputes and state sovereignty are external threats currently faced by Indonesia, not to forget geostrategic changes induced by China in the East Asian region (Rendi, 2005; Sukma, 2011, 7). Southeast Asia is a region with many unresolved territorial disputes and border issues among regional states. Since the country lost two islands (Sipadan and Ligitan) its government has begun to express its concern over specific external security problems posed by neighboring countries, threatening the security of Indonesia’s territorial integrity and its sovereignty. To sustain the country’s economic development, Indonesian demand for gas and oil has increased. The most important source for these demands remains the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ’s). “In this context, resource security becomes an important issue for Indonesia, and breach of Indonesia’s sovereignty by external actors, both state and non-state, are considered as a serious threat to national security” (Sukma, 2011, 7).
Since newly decolonized regions in Asia seemed to turn into a theater of competition for the Soviets, the US started to shape their government and policy to their interests. There are still strong ties between the US-Indonesian military-to-military relation with its two major components: weapons sale and military training (Webster, 2009, 113f). Fertile soil for terrorist networks such as the Jamaah Islamiyah is created: “Middle power leadership can sometimes be amateurish or driven by narrow anti-Americanism” (Gilley, 2012). Latest happenings were clashes in late July 2014 between an armed separatist group of Free Papua Movement (OPM) and policemen. The clashes resulted in the death of security service personnel and civilians in the Lanny Jaya regency of Papua province. “The attack and the shooting happened when the police were visiting a village under the ongoing framework of society guidance program, a program for human resource development and aims to raise awareness of law in villages” (Monthly country report Indonesia, July 2014). How will national security be understood by the new elected president?

New perspectives under a new president: “Jokowi’s” challenges

Joko Widodo; “Jokowi” faces enormous challenges since the beginning of his presidency: “The economy is slowing down, the education system is one of the worst in the region, the country’s physical infrastructure is crumbling, the region is looking to Indonesia as a natural leader …” (Kurlatzick, 2014).
There are three huge obstacles in the Indonesian policy to flatten the way to higher economic growth: First of all, a poor infrastructure which discourages investment outside of natural resources. Secondly, Indonesia is considered one of the most corrupt countries in Asia, right next to far poorer countries like Myanmar or Cambodia, and thirdly the quality of public education is poor. This can only be addressed by new reform strategies. Indonesia’s internal and transnational security concerns will still be depending on the changing power structure in the region which is mostly affected by the consistently rise of China’s economic and military capability. ”… the challenge for Southeast Asian states, including Indonesia, of China’s rise is not so much conceived in terms of “China’s threat” but more in terms of China’s future role and place in the region, and how it will affect regional security architecture.” (Sukma, 2011, 8f)

The lack of consensus about the criteria used to describe the concept ‘middle power’ produces a lot of criticism. Denis Stairs argued in 1998 that “Commentators on the roles played by ‘middle powers’ in world affairs (…) assume, or they try artfully to demonstrate, that patterns exist where in fact they do not, and that causes are simple when they are actually complex” (270–286).

I end this essay with the conclusion that Indonesia is not yet to be considered a complete ‘middle power’. This could change during Widodo’s presidency. The country already represents an inevitable moderating liaison between global giants such as China and the US as well as within the vibrant Asia-Pacific region. Indonesia searches for security in regionalism such as in cooperation with other fellow members of ASEAN. Moreover it can call itself a key regional balancer, stabiliser and even an international community’s mediator between the developing and developed word, between North and South, and between Muslim and non-Muslim-majority countries (Darmosumarto, 2013, 6). Even though it cannot fully be called ‘middle power’ in terms of instability due to corruption and poor infrastructure, the country is continuously pushing forward progress in politics and economy. Faced with all these challenges, only one decade of democracy cannot produce “uniformly positive outcomes in terms of political reform, representation, or development” (Pepinsky, 2010, 16). As long as social grievances such as corruption remain, terrorist groups will be able to increase their power. This will become a major problem to the national security should these groups unite their arms. Joko Widodo is the first directly elected president who has no connection to the old, authoritarian regime and worked all his way up from a modest background to a successful businessmen and finally into the parliament. Indonesia awaits a new definition of New Order under his government.


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