Debating Indonesia Matters

Indonesia Matters CoverAmitav Acharya Responds to Discussion on Indonesia Matters

By Amitav Acharya

During the launch of my book Indonesia Matters: Asia’s Emerging Democratic Power (Singapore and New York: World Scientific 2014;,on10th December 2014 in Washington, D.C, several important questions were raised by the panelists that could not be addressed before time ran out. As the author, I am grateful for this opportunity to provide brief responses to three key questions. I do so for the sake of encouraging more discussion and debate in Washington and elsewhere about one of the most important countries in Asia and the world.

The central question addressed by Indonesia Matters is this: how did Indonesia overcome the turmoil following the downfall of Suharto and won international recognition as an emerging power? The book argues that Indonesia did this not through military or economic strength, but through diplomacy and normative power, especially a commitment to regionalism.  This approach has lessons not only for Asia but also other aspiring powers in the world.

Question 1: Is there an alternative way of explaining Indonesia’s rise as an emerging power?

Of course there is. At the forum, panelist Prof Donald K. Emmerson claimed to offer what he called a “counter-narrative” to Indonesia Matters, which he described as a “realist” view on Indonesia as an emerging power. A realist would hold that a country can only “rise” or increase its influence in international relations through military power and wealth. Realism cannot explain the fact that Indonesia has become an influential voice in Asia and the world despite lacking in military capacity and wealth comparable to its neighbours. My book holds that Indonesia has advanced its influence by consolidating it democratization, and by developing a virtuous cycle between democracy, development and stability, through its role in ASEAN, and its normative approach to regional and international order.

No panelist offered any real argument to refute the book’s central argument that Indonesia became recognized as an emerging power not because of its military strength or economic power which are limited as yet, but because of its diplomacy and normative approach.

Since the ‘realist’ view is the traditional and established perspective in international relations and the perspective adopted in my book is relatively new, I would think that my account of why Indonesia matters is the real counter-narrative. It broadens the understanding of Indonesia by offering an alternative to the established and familiar perspective on Indonesia.

Question 2: Can Indonesia’s achievements and its role as an emerging power unravel?

At the forum, Professor Emmerson discussed at some length the limitations and vulnerabilities of Indonesia, including the rise of counter-democratic forces, and the economic slowdown. Lest anyone thinks I have ignored these, Chapter 6 of Indonesia Matters discusses several key challenges to Indonesia’s regional and international role. These include: (1) poor quality and uncertain durability of Indonesian democracy, (2) risks of middle income trap for a resource dependent economy, (3) the continuing problems of internal stability, (4) the danger posed by intensified US-China competition which calls into question the previous government’s “dynamic equilibrium” and “million friends, zero enemies” slogans, and (5) inadequate foreign policy capacity and the uncertain impact of leadership transition on foreign policy. (For a summary, see: Amitav Acharya, “From Yudhoyono to Jokowi: Can Indonesia Keep Rising?”

But the major difference here is that my discussion of Indonesia’s vulnerabilities and challenges draws almost entirely from Indonesians themselves from different walks of life. During my research, I came to realize that the best critics (far better than me or Western pundits) of Indonesia’s government, political system and foreign policy are the Indonesians themselves.

Moreover, I believe the five challenges facing Indonesia discussed in my book not only affected President SBY’s foreign policy, but will also set limits to how far President Jokowi can go in altering course in foreign policy.

Question 3: Indonesia’s foreign policy under Jokowi

 Indonesia Matters was completed before President Jokowi assumed office. Its main goal was to offer an analysis of how Indonesia recovered from the crisis following the ouster of Suharto to achieve international recognition as an emerging power. It is not a book about SBY’s foreign policy, but about Indonesian foreign policy.

It is hardly surprising that the new Jokowi administration might craft and conduct its own foreign policy different from its predecessor. In any democratic nation, it is to be expected, as with Modi’s India or Abe’s Japan. Moreover Jokowi takes over at a time when Indonesia’s military and economic conditions have improved substantially relative to 10 years again when SBY took over. So Jokowi has more cards to play with. But there are limits and major shifts would carry costs.

It is too early to say to what extent the new administration, now only a few weeks old, might alter the course of Indonesian foreign policy.  But Indonesia Matters does provide some clues to understanding the challenges and constraints President Jokowi faces. Rizal Sukma, a key adviser to President Jokowi and a panelist at the 10 December event, hinted that President Jokowi will give more emphasis to bilateralism. This may well be true, but one should not forget that his predecessors starting with President Megawati had concluded at least 18 bilateral “comprehensive” and “strategic” partnerships including with the US, Japan, China, Australia, India, and Vietnam.

Some analysts say that that Jokowi’s foreign policy will be more about ‘national interest and less about multilateralism’. To me, such a distinction is simplistic. The two are not mutually incompatible. Being engaged in ASEAN and the G-20 surely serves Indonesia’s national interest. During the last presidential campaign, Jokowi himself pledged to pursue diplomacy and negotiations to resolve regional and international problems, partly in an effort to distance himself from rival candidate Probowo’s “power-based approach, stressing the build-up of military strength” (Indonesia Matters, p.131). Since assuming office, President Jokowi has made a successful round of multilateral summitry including the East Asian Summit, the APEC Leaders’ Summit and the G-20 summit. Indeed, Sukma characterized Indonesia’s role as that of a “middle power”. That very concept connotes the pursuit of diplomacy and multilateralism.

Some see the recent move by the Indonesian forces in seizing and destroying foreign vessels in Indonesian waters as evidence of a radical shift in Indonesian foreign policy. Surely no one can object to a country defending its territorial space from illegal encroachment. And Indonesia claims to do this enforcement within the framework of law. Will this translate into a radical change of course in its foreign policy? Only time will tell.

But my book offers some idea of the costs and consequences of such a policy shift should the Jokowi administration pursue military assertiveness at the expense of diplomacy and ASEAN. By most accounts, as discussed in my book, Indonesia will take another decade or more years to develop the requisite military capability to stand up to its powerful neighbours. Pursuing a militant maritime military role at a time of major military weakness, Jakarta could be heading to a dangerous position if it also downgrades and loses ASEAN’s support.

The message of the book

I conclude the book by arguing that the challenges facing Indonesia notwithstanding, they do not warrant belittling the country’s recent achievements in domestic politics and foreign policy in the name of a “realist” perspective. The bottom-line of my book is this: “Indonesia’s ability to avoid collapse and rebuild itself is one of the most impressive stories of the late 20th and early 21st century. Its journey since the fall of Suharto is all the more inspiring at a time when the world has seen many failing nations, recurring economic crises, and growing radicalism and terrorism.” (Indonesia Matters, p.130).

I stand by these words.

 Indonesia Matters was described by Jakarta Post editor, Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, as “required reading material for Indonesian foreign policy students, diplomats going into foreign service and those going to be posted in Indonesia” (

But Indonesia Matters is not meant for Indonesians alone. The book also calls on American and Western scholars and policymakers to take Indonesia seriously.

We are in the midst of a global shift in power, wealth and influence. Until now, it has been easy for Western scholars and policymakers to dismiss the progress of non-Western countries like Indonesia, some of which are emerging by following pathways that are quite different from those followed by the Western or Asian powers and thus defy conventional wisdom and traditionalist views on international affairs. Hence the perspective adopted in Indonesia Matters may better reflect the complexities of the 21st century.

(Panelists at the the launch of Indonesia Matters included the author, Rizal Sukma, Donald K. Emmerson, Murray Hiebert and Joseph Liow)

Related Articles:

Carl Thayer, ‘Indonesia: Playing With Fire in the South China Sea’.

Joe Cochrane, ‘Many Hope Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s New Leader, Will Raise Country’s Regional Stature’.


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