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power

The rise of Indonesia

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country by population and is one of South-East Asia’s most dynamic economies.

Located at the juncture between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it has the potential to become a leading regional power.

However, its location is also a source of considerable challenges that Indonesia will have to manage attentively in the coming years.

Indonesia’s Geography

The very name Indonesia is revealing: it comes from Greek and means “Indian Islands”. As a matter of fact, Indonesia is an archipelago located at the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean, and this is a key factor that has shaped its geopolitical thinking.

In terms of dimension and configuration, Indonesia is a vast but fragmented state. It counts over 18,000 islands; the most important of which are Sumatra, Java, the southern section of Borneo, Sulawesi and the western part of New Guinea.

These islands, covered by a thick rainforest rich in wildlife, have a volcanic origin. This means that Indonesia is vulnerable to seismic events and tsunamis; something that has a negative impact on its human security environment.

The country extends over almost 8 million square kilometres if we take into account its maritime space including the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. Combined with its archipelagic nature, this makes it difficult for the central state to exert its power over all the territory; also, because fragmentation is reflected in demographic terms: the population exceeds 260 million citizens divided in more than 300 ethnic groups; and this has important implications on the country’s geopolitics.

Moving on, Indonesia’s position has a deep impact on its foreign affairs. Located at the crossroad between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Indonesia plays a pivotal role for international maritime trade.

Sumatra is the southern boundary of the Malacca Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways and a strategic chokepoint. But Indonesia also controls other important straits; notably Sunda, Lombok and Makassar. These are all essential for trade between Europe and Asia, but also for the latter’s energy security.

Most of the oil it consumes transits through these narrow passages; which explains their geostrategic relevance. Indonesia hugely benefits from its role as a gateway between the two oceans, but this also brings considerable strategic problems because foreign powers have always been trying to control the archipelago.

This continues today: China, the US, Japan and India all have major interests at stake in the Indonesian Straits, and are trying to expand their influence on the country. Finally, the archipelago also hosts important natural resources like oil, gas, minerals, timber and fish. These commodities are a source of wealth for Indonesia, but also another driver for the presence of external powers.

Indonesia’s Geopolitical Thinking

Indonesia’s nature as an archipelago and its “crossroad location”, a concept known as posisi silang, have shaped its geopolitical thinking since it gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949. Indonesia had to assert its authority over its surrounding seas to ensure its prosperity and security. A first step in this sense was the 1957 Djuanda Declaration, by which Indonesia claimed its sovereignty over all the maritime areas around the archipelago; especially those located between its main islands like the Java and Flores seas.

This stance was later recognized internationally by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. The Djuanda Declaration was the first step towards a more comprehensive doctrine called “Maritime Archipelagic Outlook”, or Wawasan Nusantara Bahari. First formulated in 1966, this Doctrine still stands today. It considers that Indonesia’s location leaves it vulnerable to foreign meddling and that its fragmented geography endangers the unity of the state; but it is also the basis for justifying Indonesia’s leading regional role.

In geostrategic terms, the doctrine considers Java and its sea as Indonesia’s core, which must be protected from external threats. Applying a mandala logic, it identifies three concentric layers that are the base of Indonesia’s foreign and defence policy.

The innermost circle is Indonesia itself, the middle one extends to South-East Asia and Australia, while the external zone includes the rest of the world. The sea is equally important from a geoeconomic point of view.

Indonesia is a trade crossroad, it has an important fishing industry and its waters host important hydrocarbon deposits, estimated to hold 3.7 billion barrels of oil and 2,900 billion cubic feet of gas. As such, securing the sea has a primary importance for the country’s economy.

Finally, in geopolitical terms, it considers the sea as the space connecting the various islands that form its geographically and culturally fragmented territory. This configuration makes separatism easier, and therefore is seen as a threat to the unity of the state; even though it is also argued that the separation of the different national groups reduces the risk of inter-ethnic conflict. Moreover, the sea is the mean by which foreign powers have reached the archipelago in the past.

Consequently, Indonesia believes that controlling the sea is a precondition to preserve the unity and the independence of the state. In this sense, it seeks to achieve resilience both at home and in neighbouring states, assuming that Indonesia is safe only if the archipelago and the surrounding countries are stable.

Yet, Indonesia must face several challenges. Apart from numerous secessionist movements, some of which have been successful, it must also cope with illegal fishing, smuggling, unauthorized immigration and piracy. The latter was once a major problem, but it has been greatly reduced thanks to multilateral efforts and by improving the living conditions of coastal areas.

Terrorism is also a matter of concern, and several attacks have already taken place.

In economic terms, even though Indonesia’s national strategy emphasizes the cohesion of the state and aims to limit foreign meddling, most of its hydrocarbons and of its resources in general are exploited by foreign corporations. In addition, there is a great disparity between urban areas like Jakarta and the rest of the country, especially outside Java.

Indonesia’s power

Indonesia can be considered a middle power, but it is definitely a rising one. Its GDP is the largest in South-East Asia, and in 2017 it amounted to 3.25 trillion measured in US dollars of the same year in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. This ranked the country as the world’s 7th largest economy, and it is projected to become the 4th by 2050. Indonesia’s steady 5% growth rate is helped by low inflation, a budget deficit under control and a public debt representing just 29% of the GDP. Moreover, saving is quite high at around 32% and investments are flowing in, thus paving the way to a continued growth. The trade balance is positive, driven by the export of commodities like oil, gas, coal, metals and palm oil; but also many other low added-value products such as clothing and electric components. Always in terms of PPP, its per capita GDP reached 12,700 dollars in 2017: a still low figure, but a remarkable progress from past levels. Unemployment is only 5.5%; yet, agriculture still retains 32% of the workforce and around 10% of Indonesians live below the poverty line, with 21% remaining at risk. The country also has real problems in terms of corruption and inequality, and must face notable environmental challenges: rising sea levels, deforestation, and extreme weather are already causing notable losses to its economy and are menacing its human security.

Indonesia’s armed forces are also evolving. It spends about 0.8% of its GDP on defence; and in spite of the emphasis given to the sea, the Army has a greater importance than the Navy. Land forces, notably marines and special forces units trained for asymmetric warfare, are indeed important for such a fragmented country; but the Navy remains underdeveloped. It mainly relies on corvettes, and having only 8 frigates and less than 5 diesel-electric submarines seems insufficient, even though it has a good park of minesweepers and there are talks to buy more subs. Similarly, the Air Force only counts around 40 fighters and some attack aircraft. These two branches have quite advanced equipment and are better than those of most ASEAN countries, but Indonesia will need to expand them to affirm itself as a regional power and to cope with challenges like China’s rise.

Conclusion: Indonesia’s foreign policy today

The maritime dimension, control over the straits, internal stability, autonomy from foreign influences and an active regional role have been the cornerstones of Indonesia’s foreign policy for decades. In 1955, Indonesia held a conference in Bandung that marked the birth of the non-aligned movement of states that did not want to side with neither the US nor the USSR.

Today, it still keeps this stance. Regionally, it supports integration through the Association of South-East Asian Nations, or ASEAN; and it aspires to become its leader. In its relations with external powers, notably the US and China, it attempts maximizing its autonomy by keeping ties with all of them. Indonesia maintains good political and trade relations with both, but it is worth mentioning that it hosts a significant Chinese diaspora which represents around 1% of the population and runs many successful business activities. At the same time, it also cooperates with other powers. Japan and India are important economic partners and security cooperation is growing, especially with the latter. Indonesia also trades with European countries; which are also important arms suppliers.

It is expected that Indonesia’s foreign policy will continue along this line in the next future: trying to maintain its partnership with multiple countries so to maximize its benefit and freedom of action. But in the evolving international scenery of the Indo-Pacific, where the US maintain a strong presence all while China and India are rising, it will be hard for Indonesia not to take sides.

Can India become a global power?

India is a country that is expected to play a central role in the 21st century. Having a large and fast-growing economy, it is also strengthening its military and is well positioned to dominate South Asia and extend its influence beyond it. But it must also face notable challenges, both domestically and geopolitically.

THE GEOGRAPHICAL BASES OF INDIA’S POWER

To understand India’s current international role and to anticipate the one it will have in the coming decades, it is necessary to analyse the geographic fundamentals of its power.

The first thing to consider is its dimension. India is a vast state and this has several positive and negative implications. On the one hand, this means that India can benefit from a notable strategic depth, but on the other it also means that connecting all the parts of its territory is a difficult endeavour.

This must be considered along with India’s configuration. Its territory presents a wide range of environments and climatic areas. Far to the north there are the towering mountains of Himalaya, a formidable geographic barrier that separates it from China. This is important, considering the complicated relations between the two powers.

Then, there are the fertile valleys of the Ganges and other rivers, which are vital sources of water and useful communication lanes that have favoured agriculture, industrialization and energy production.

The Deccan Plateau that occupies the southern part of the Peninsula is another notable geographic feature, also because of its mineral resources.

India holds quite abundant ore deposits that have helped its industrialization. In terms of energy, while it has its own production of oil and other fossil fuels, this is not sufficient to meet the country’s large and expanding needs.

Other areas include jungles, arid deserts and tropical shores; which all present both advantages and challenges: for instance, the Thar desert between India and Pakistan is a useful buffer zone, but is also a problem for economic development.

Finally, in terms of position India occupies most of South Asia, and its location favours both defence and power projection. As seen before, it benefits from good natural barriers to the north, but at the same time its neighbours are not friendly.

To the north-east, China is getting everyday more powerful and its geopolitical ambitions are a matter of concern for India.

To the north-west lays Pakistan, which apart from being India’s arch-nemesis since the 1947 partition has also built close ties with the PRC. But while the situation to the north is very challenging for India, its southern borders are very favourable.

There, the coast extends for thousands of kilometres on the open Ocean. This means three things: first, that there are no hostile powers at the border that threaten India’s security; even though it does not see positively China’s activities in that maritime area.

Second, this grants India an easy access to offshore resources and most importantly to sea trade. This is also favoured by the fact that India is located mid-way between East Asia and Europe, two of the world’s richest economic areas, plus to the Middle East and its energy resources. Third, this enables India to project its power with little effort, notably through its Navy.

Yet, there are also challenges deriving from India’s position, notably linked to climate change. Having a typical monsoon climate characterized by cycles of abundant rainfalls and dry periods, South Asia is extremely exposed to its effects, as demonstrated by the seriousness and frequency of recent phenomena like drought, floods, and violent storms. Moreover, this also favours the spread of pests and disease. All such factors bear enormous costs both in the form of direct damage and of prevention efforts, and is a notable obstacle to India’s development.

India’s economic and military power

The rise of India as a major power largely lays on its economic development. In 2017, its GDP rose by 6.7% and today it is the world’s fourth in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. Its economy is diversified and several Indian firms have become major players in global business. Financially, India is generally stable, even though it experienced some troubles in recent years.

But the country is not yet fully developed. Infrastructures remain insufficient, and inefficiency exist in various sectors. While unemployment is low (less than 9% in 2017), larger shares of the population continue to live below the poverty line, and traditional agriculture still absorbs a considerable portion of the workforce. Income inequality remains strong, with large differences in wealth distribution between upper and lower classes and between different regions.

In the demographic dimension, India has a population of around 1.28 billion people, making it the second largest in the world just behind China, and it is expected to surpass it in the coming years. Most Indians are young, which is positive for its economic development. But at the same time having a big population also brings several challenges: achieving food and energy security becomes more difficult, as well as providing public services such as a healthcare.  Moreover, this raises the problem of overcrowding and pollution, especially in large cities. Finally, the differences in wealth distribution can result in to social tensions: most of the population lives in the north, where a considerable Muslim minority is also present, but these areas are poorer than the southern parts of the country. In this regard, it should be noted that India has been fighting for decades against the insurgency of a Maoist group called the Naxalites.

Nevertheless, India continues its rise, also in military terms. It can field a large force that regularly participates to international exercises, and over the past few years it has been spending around 2.5% off its GDP in defence expenditures to modernize its armed forces. The Navy holds a particular importance, as it represents the mean to project its power across the Indian Ocean. As of today, the Indian Navy operates a large fleet that includes an aircraft carrier, a nuclear-powered attack submarine and several other units. In cooperation with Russia, India is also developing the BrahMos hypersonic cruise missile. Finally, it must not be forgotten that India is a nuclear power with an estimated stockpile of more than 100 warheads.

India’s geopolitics and foreign policy

For decades, India has maintained a nonaligned policy, of which it has been one of the leaders. But non-alignment does not mean neutrality.  As a matter of fact, India has pursued its own national interests and has been involved in several conflicts.

Its oldest rival is of course Pakistan. Immediately after the partition in 1947, the two fought a major war, followed by another two in 1965 and 1971, plus series of skirmishes. Today, the relations remain tense, but the conflict remains frozen because both states have developed a nuclear strike capacity.

The main point of the divergence is Kashmir, which remains divided between India, Pakistan and China (who controls the Aksai Chin since the 1962 war with India). Apart from having become a symbol of the Indo-Pakistani rivalry, Kashmir also has a strategic importance for these powers.

Ruling it allows to control the flow of water along the Indus valley, with all the consequences for human and economic development. For India, Kashmir is the gateway towards Central Asia as well as a region to control in order to prevent Pakistan from cooperating with its powerful Chinese ally.

On the other hand, for Pakistan dominating it is necessary to have more strategic depth and to preserve its connection with China, especially now that they are working together to develop the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an ambitious infrastructure project to connect the two countries and that Islamabad considers fundamental to boost its economy, even though there are concerns over the debts its completion will bring.

This makes it clear that Pakistan is not India’s only strategic problem, and not even the main one. In recent years, China has become the prominent national security concern for India. One reason is the former’s close ties with Pakistan, but there also direct disputes between Beijing and New Delhi, namely over the aforementioned Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. The latter belongs to India, but is claimed by the PRC, and it represents a unique strategic challenge for New Delhi. As a matter of fact, it is connected to the rest of India only via a narrow passage chocked between China and Bangladesh and known as the “chicken neck”.  India fears that in case of a conflict the Chinese will rapidly overtake the Arunachal Pradesh by attacking this passage and cutting it from the rest of its territory.

In addition, Beijing and New Delhi are engaged in a geopolitical competition in South Asia. In 2017, the two powers faced each other in a military standoff over the Doklam Plateau, a strategic territory belonging to Bhutan (traditionally close to India) but claimed by the PRC; and since then they have been building up their military forces along the border.

China is also establishing ties with Nepal, raising concerns that the country me fall under its control, which would allow it to directly threaten Northern India. New Delhi has similar concerns over Bangladesh, because if it were to adopt a pro Chinese stance, the “chicken neck” would become even more vulnerable.

But the Sino-Indian rivalry is not limited to South Asia. The two are also competing in Indochina, where each of them is promoting its own economic and political projects. New Delhi is doing so on the basis of its “Look East Policy” launched in the 90s, whereas the latter considers this region an important element of its broader “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) strategy. In this regard, it is notable that India has refused to cooperate with China in this ambitious project.

Another country where their interest collide is Iran. India considers it a potentially precious ally, because it would allow to take Pakistan between two fires. Moreover, it is also a source of oil. But for these very same result and to counter the U.S., China is also interested in building a partnership with Iran.

Last but not least, there is the maritime dimension. Beijing is fostering its ties and establishing a greater presence in the Indian Ocean, in the optic of developing its Maritime Silk Road to connect its territory with Europe and the Middle East and by sea. But New Delhi considers this as “its own” Ocean and as an essential area for its plans to extend its influence on a global scale. Therefore, it is concerned by Beijing’s initiatives; notably in countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In regard to the letter, the political turmoil that has affected the archipelago was largely to be interpreted in the optic of the Sino-Indian rivalry; and the recent electoral victory of Mohamed Solih seems to have marked a point in favour of India.

As a consequence of its rivalry with Beijing, New Delhi is also developing closer ties with other capitals that share similar security interests. The most notable trend is the gradual rapprochement with Washington. Even though it was never openly opposed to the US, during much of the Cold War India sympathized with the USSR and its relations with America were rather cold. But now that both are concerned over China’s rise, they are gradually establishing more cooperation, notably in security terms. India is following a similar policy with Japan and Australia, two other powers that are worried over the initiatives of the PRC. Together, these four states form the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal framework to ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific.

Two other noteworthy partners for India are Israel and the EU. The relations with the former are complicated by India’s tilts towards Iran, but the Jewish State remains an important partner as an arms supplier and for technological cooperation. On its part, the EU has a central role for India’s trade. Lastly, it should also be mentioned that New Delhi is increasing its economic cooperation with Africa as well.

Conclusion: India at the crossroad

This overview allows to draw some conclusion on India’s current and future role. The country finds itself at a crossroad. It has all the potential to emerge as a major world power, but to achieve this objective it must successfully solve the multiple challenges it is facing. Only time will tell to what extent it will manage to, but what is sure is that India is a power to monitor, and that in any case it will have a considerable impact in world affairs in the coming years.

This article was originally commissioned and first published by KJ Vids. It was written by Alessandro Gagaridis. You can visit his website at www.strategikos.it. Please request permission to info@kjvids.co.uk before re-posting.

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Twelve months ago, in October 2017, the Ministry of Defense published a national security strategic review that intended to address the most immediate challenges France faces as well as clear vision of long-term geopolitical and technological trends. I’m Kasim, this is KJ Vids and in this video, we will look at France’s role in the world and the direction in which it is heading. Will France remain a GREAT POWER?

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