When a recent survey indicated that 80 percent of Indonesians believe their nation can become a superpower, it was more a reflection of growing nationalist sentiment in a country that is striving to maintain its independence from the current global contest between the United States and China.
Indonesia is far from gaining superpower status, if ever, so clearly there is a huge gap between the aspirations of a large majority of its people and the current reality of the nation’s true strengths.
If a superpower status is defined chiefly by its economic power and military might, Indonesia has neither. But even if it can pull it off economically in the next decade or two, it is unlikely that Indonesia can ever become a military power in the foreseeable future. Indonesians should instead settle for a great power status, a superpower sans the menacing military might.
The Soegeng Sarjadi Syndicate survey charts a national sentiment that tells the world of Indonesia’s long-held intention to play an active role in international diplomacy, an aspiration that goes back to 1945 when the country declared its independence from Dutch colonialism.
The preamble to the constitution, enacted on the eve of independence, mandates the government to take an active part “in ensuring an international order based on freedom, peace, and social justice.”
Today’s superpower aspirations come with the growing confidence as Indonesia emerges to become a middle power in the last decade, a status that has come not only through the sheer size of its population and territory, but also thanks to the growing strength of its economy and the advantage of a relatively functional democracy that has ensured some degree of political stability.
A large population was once regarded as a huge liability for any country that kept its people impoverished. Not anymore. Like China and India, which have over one billion people each, Indonesia, with its 240 million, is proving that its population gives it a large pool of workers that contribute to the gross domestic product while ensuring a large domestic market to support its own economy.
Size matters in global politics, and size backed up by a healthy economy and a credible democratic government matters even more.
Indonesia has risen literally from the ashes after the devastating 1998 Asian financial crisis and the collapse of the Suharto authoritarian regime. The successful transition gives Indonesia international accolades such as the world’s third largest democracy (after India and the United States), and the largest democracy in a Muslim-majority nation. While the nation still faces many challenges in building a truly democratic system, the three general elections held in the last 14 years provided the people with real choices on who should lead the nation.
But it is in the economy that Indonesia has done the best. Indonesia was not as badly affected by the global economic recession in 2008-2009 as most other countries, and has since even managed to clock growth rates of above 6 percent a year. This year, Fitch and Moody’s granted Indonesia the long-coveted investment grade rating. It could not have come sooner. With India on the verge of losing its investment grade this week, there were suggestions that Indonesia should take its place in the BRIC club of the world’s large emerging economies.
Although Indonesia is not without its economic challenges, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last year unveiled an ambitious blueprint to accelerate economic growth and development. Consistently applied, the plan would lift Indonesia from its current ranking as the 17th largest economy in the world to within the top 10 by 2025. Officials predict that at the current rate of development, it is not impossible for Indonesia to become one of the world’s five largest economies before 2040.
Underpinning this optimism is the fact that Indonesia will enjoy a period of “demographic dividend” in the coming decade, when the size of its working age population relative to those they have to support is the largest. This period, which will last a decade, should propel economic growth even further, especially if most of them would be gainfully employed to contribute to the overall GDP.
While Indonesia may have all the necessary ingredients to move up from being a middle power to a great power, there is one area where it lags, which may come as a comfort to its neighbors: military power.
Indonesia’s military presently is one of the weakest in the region, and the current massive military spending to modernize its weaponry will only take it to what it calls the minimum essential force. With so much water (the archipelago comprises more than 17,000 islands) and such a large airspace to protect, Indonesia’s military buildup would focus chiefly on strengthening its own defense posture and is unlikely to offer much of a threat to its neighbors.
The desire among Indonesians for their country to be a global player is rooted in the nation’s modern history. Indonesia hosted the historic Asia-Africa conference in 1955 that gave inspiration to many nations in both continents to fight for their freedom. A few years later, Indonesia joined with India and Yugoslavia to found the Non-Aligned Movement to offer nations an alternative to membership in the emerging East and West power blocs.
Newly independent and poor, Indonesia contributed in no small way to the building of a post-World War II international order based on “freedom, peace, and social justice” as mandated by the constitution. Now endowed with a much stronger (and growing) economy and much greater confidence, Indonesia is looking to play its part once again in the construction of a new international order along with other great powers in the world.