International relations, which began aftermath of the Cold War, continued until the early 2000s and then entered an era of turbulence, have opened a new chapter in the long-standing quest for global order. The previous paradigm of inter-state conflicts, intra-state rivalries, and non-state actors’ political ambitions has given way to a geopolitical rivalry that engenders greater tectonic shifts, often referred to as the “New Great Game”.
Consequent to the decline in relative power of the United States of America (USA), the predominant actor within the international order, the global system has witnessed a resurgence of a multipolar structure, which has led to the diminishing influence of center state- its periphery relations, while concurrently bolstering the nascent region-hub state system. To clarify, while each geopolitical region possesses its unique strengths, different power centers have long remained in the background owing to the overwhelming dominance of the United States across all regions. However, recent developments unequivocally indicate a reversal of this dynamic, signaling a shift in the prevailing order. Yet, none of the new power centers emerging in the East, West, North, South and the Middle Line has been as prominent and recognized as a game-changer as the rise of the Indo-Pacific region.
The Indo-Pacific region, spanning from the western shores of the United States to the eastern coasts of Africa and encompassing the Suez Canal, has emerged as a pivotal arena for active engagement among both regional and global powers. It serves as a host to the world’s most populous nations, encompasses seven out of the top ten countries with the most formidable military capabilities, includes six nations possessing nuclear weapons, consolidates nine out of the ten busiest ports, facilitates approximately 60% of global maritime trade, and harbors some of the world’s most robust economies.
The ascent of the Indo-Pacific has undoubtedly led rival focal points such as China and the United States to emphasize the region as a top priority in their global power projections. On the one hand, this situation creates new chances and opportunities for the region, but on the other hand, it promises instability and the difficulty of choosing sides between the two poles due to the rivalry between China and the United States stemming from the global power struggle.
As international relations steadily veer towards turbulence in the Era of Great Power Rivalry, paradoxically, it concurrently presents states with an avenue to augment their influence within their respective regions. Undoubtedly, this phenomenon is directly linked to the strategic steps undertaken and to be pursued by actors. Through their deliberate pursuit of neutrality, prioritization of national policies, and commitment to fostering peace and prosperity with the motto of win-win approach, regional powers offer a third way and consolidate their regional leadership by maintaining an active neutral stance among the polarizing forces. Although the Indo-Pacific is increasingly being shaped by developments centered on China and the US, Indonesia, a major power in the region, has long advocated in the existence of a third way.
As the largest archipelagic nation globally and the largest country in Southeast Asia, strategically situated at the nexus of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Indonesia represents the fulcrum of the regional spirit that rejects the politics of tension and picking sides, thanks to its long tradition of leadership and its unquestionable power among Southeast Asian countries. Indonesia, which will provide great advantages to the side it chooses and perhaps feel the benefits of this in the short term, prefers to pursue a long-term strategy instead and designs a Southeast Asia Jakarta-centered. Particularly since Joko Widodo took office in 2014, Jakarta has tried to build a bloc by effectively using the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which 10 regional states are members, and bolstered its regional leadership and consolidated its position by being active in the decisions taken within ASEAN.
Indonesia, the most powerful country among ASEAN members in both demographic and economic terms, has been pioneering centrality policies in order to play a leading role within the organization. In 2019, ASEAN officially unveiled its Indo-Pacific Strategy, and it would not be wrong to say that the efforts of the Indonesian Foreign Ministry were decisive. Notably, the “Indo-Pacific Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation” announced by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa in 2013 serves as the cornerstone of ASEAN’s present Indo-Pacific policies and underscores the pursuit of centrality.
Furthermore, in November 2018, during his address at the East Asia Summit, Indonesian President Jokowi Widodo laid the theoretical-conceptual foundation for the concept of “ASEAN Centrality” by emphasizing openness, inclusiveness, transparency, respect for international law and ASEAN centrality.
Moreover, Indonesia has guide the active functioning of ASEAN institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting, and encouraged both the US and China to join them. Through this approachy, it has succeeded in forcing Beijing and Washington to follow ASEAN’s path rather than ASEAN being an institution that follows the strategies of China and the United States. By addressing the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy implemented by the US in the context of China containment policy with an ASEAN-centered approach that includes all countries including China, Indonesia has demonstrated its leadership capacity and willingness to play this role.
The substantial advancements made by Indonesia in the economic area, alongside its successful endeavors in geopolitical and leadership matters over the past decade, are clear and noteworthy. In an era marked by the questioning of globalization and Atlantic dominance, Jakarta, as one of the strengthening economies, particularly in Asia and other diverse geographies, is formulating and executing strategies in accordance with this evolving landscape. Indeed, according to the Economist, Indonesia has grown faster than any other economy over $1 trillion in the last decade, except China and India, and has joined the club of upper middle-income countries.
As one of the substantial destinations of China’s Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2013, Indonesia, like many other countries around the world, has established close economic ties with China and succeeded in attracting large-scale investments. Since the establishment of the “Strategic Partnership” in 2005 and the subsequent “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” in 2013, the economic engagement between Beijing and Jakarta has experienced rapid growth, resulting in China emerging as Indonesia’s largest trading partner. According to official Chinese data in 2021, bilateral trade grew by 58.6 per cent from the previous year to US$124.4 billion, with Chinese exports increasing by 48.1 per cent to US$60.7 billion and imports jumping by 70.1 per cent to US$63.8 billion.
Recent major Chinese investments include the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Railway, the Batang Toru hydroenergy project, an electric vehicle and lithium battery factory in Morowali, the Jatigede dam, the Medan-Kualanamu highway and the Kuala Tanjung port. Coal, nickel, copper, palm oil and agricultural products are Indonesia’s main export products. Especially after the tensions along the China-Australia relations, coal has become increasingly critical commodity for China. Jakarta, attracting significant investments from Japan, the European Union (EU), Australia, and non-regional actors, presents significant opportunities in various sectors, particularly in energy fields such as infrastructure and geothermal, thanks to its investment-friendly legal regulations. As a consequence of that, it not only promotes foreign investment but also reduces the unemployment rate within the Indonesia.
Jakarta is strengthening its economic relations with China, one of the main actors in the Indo-Pacific, while simultaneously deepening its security and military cooperation with the United States, another major actor in the Indo-Pacific. In recent years, relations between the United States and Indonesia have been rapidly developing in the security and diplomatic spheres and have been shaped around the common interests of both sides. The relationship, greatly enhanced by the visit of former US President Barack Obama, entered a new phase with the signing of the “Comprehensive Partnership” agreement in 2010 and the subsequent signing of the “Strategic Partnership” agreement in 2015. These agreements have significantly elevated the bilateral ties between the two countries. Washington stands as Indonesia’s foremost defense ally, as evidenced by the extensive range of military exercises and events conducted annually, and as a crucial partner in the concerted efforts to combat terrorism and extremism.
In addition, Jakarta perceives Washington as its paramount security collaborator in addressing jurisdictional disputes and occasional tensions with Beijing concerning Natuna Island. The “Super Garuda Shield,” a substantial joint military exercise between the two nations, is often regarded as Indonesia’s pivotal deterrent in relation to the Natuna issue.
Arms sales also holds significance in the security alliance between Indonesia and the United States. According to data released by the US in 2021, Washington exported US$1.88 billion worth of military equipment between 2015 and 2019, including vehicles such as F-16C/D Block 25 fighter aircraft, AH-64D Apache Block III Longbow helicopters, MV-22 Block C Osprey aircraft, Javelin, AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM, AIM-9X-2 Sidewinder, and AGM-65K2 Maverick missiles and in 2022, the USA sold Indonesia 36 F-15EX fighter jets worth 14 billion dollars. It is worth mentioning that this arms sale occurs in the context of Indonesia’s decision to cancel its procurement of SU-35 fighter jets from Russia as a result of imposed sanctions. Indonesia views the principles of a free, open, and rules-based order, which constitute the foundation of its Indo-Pacific strategy, as crucial for regional peace. Therefore, it has been actively fostering a deepening partnership with the United States in pursuit of its own strategic interests.
The upcoming 2024 elections in Indonesia hold significant importance for the region, as they will shape the country’s stance on economic interests, national security, and social cohesion in the midst of the power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region. Current Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who is seen as the most likely candidate for the presidency instead of Widodo, who cannot run after two terms as per the law, could be a robust message from Indonesia against the current regional dynamics. This is because the evolving dynamics of international relations in the Indo-Pacific region have witnessed a shift from an economy-centric approach to a more defense and security-oriented framework in recent years. Against this backdrop, the emergence of a leader with a military background assuming a diplomatic role could potentially facilitate Indonesia’s adept continuation of its longstanding strategy of maintaining equidistance between major actors in an increasingly securitized Indo-Pacific. This would enable Jakarta to navigate the complexities of the region and effectively respond to the changing geopolitical landscape.
In the Indo-Pacific, which is squeezed between China and the United States, Indonesia should be seen as one of the rising powers of the next period, trying to establish a regional geo-economic-geosecurity balance as the leading country ASEAN, and on the other hand, trying to pursue a policy of active neutrality on a global scale by meeting with the leaders of both Russia and Ukraine. An Indonesia that will maintain the “Bebas Dan Aktif” strategy, which can be translated as independent and active, as the main core of its foreign policy will undoubtedly be seen as an actor that can balance the escalating tensions in the Indo-Pacific.
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