Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Indonesia's Rising Regional and Global Profile: Does Size Really Matter?

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Indonesia's Rising Regional and Global Profile: Does Size Really Matter?

Article excerpt

Scholars have long regarded Indonesia as among the world's most important regional powers and a "pivotal" one at that. (1) Indeed, in the decades following independence in 1945, many Indonesian leaders felt that the country's size, resources and revolutionary history entitled Jakarta to a leadership role in Southeast Asia. (2) While the subsequent history of the country's trajectory in world affairs has not always reflected such self-conceptions, many now argue that Indonesia's

regional and global profile is rising. (3) Since 2003, Indonesia has been the driving force behind political and security community building in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), even as it strengthens bilateral partnerships with major powers such as the United States, Russia, India, China and Australia. Indonesia has also been actively engaged on many global issues such as climate change and been an ardent supporter of global institutions including the G20 and the UN Security Council. Indonesia's economic growth rates in recent years of between 4 to 6 per cent annually have also been impressive, especially given the difficulties faced by other countries during the global financial crisis. Finally, the consolidation of democracy has increased domestic resilience and earned the country international approbation. (4)

This turn of events is quite remarkable given that a little over a decade ago some analysts were predicting the "Balkanization" of Indonesia following a series of economic and political crises which accompanied the fall of President Soeharto, including an upsurge in separatist activity and the violent separation of East Timor in 1999. (5) While it is clearly difficult to isolate the single most important reason behind Indonesia's recovery and increasing regional and global profile, some observers have cited the country's land and population size as providing it with the capital to play a regional and even global leadership role. (6) Indonesia is not only the largest country in Southeast Asia in terms of land size and population, but also the world's largest archipelagic state and is rich in natural resources. An economist at Morgan Stanley has noted that together with improved government finances and political stability, the "natural advantage from demography and commodity resources is likely to unleash Indonesia's growth potential". (7)

This line of reasoning seems to echo the Realist school of International Relations which favours material factors--such as economy, natural resources, population size and geography--as the primary indicators of national power. As such, when a country such as Indonesia possesses these material factors, and if it can manage its domestic political affairs and maintain cohesion, its rise is more likely to occur. Thus, some would argue that Indonesia's rising profile is due to its potential material powers, mainly, though not exclusively, its size. Although this line of reasoning can be persuasive, as this paper seeks to demonstrate, it only tells half the story. Indonesia's complex history, domestic political system and threat perceptions suggests that what is required is a more nuanced assessment of the country's rising regional and global profile.

Understanding Indonesia as a rising power is important because it is one of Southeast Asia's key leaders and is also an active participant in Asia's emerging regional security architecture. At the theoretical level, explaining why rising powers rise the way they do is also significant if we are to understand the future of regional stability and order. While there is no commonly accepted definition of "power" in International Relations--let alone what definitively constitutes a rising power (8)--there seems to be several "middle powers", such as Turkey, South Africa, Brazil and Indonesia that not only possess growing economic and political might, but also have the potential as well as aspiration to challenge the legitimacy of the post-Second World War order. …

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