This makes Indonesia an extraordinary logistical and infrastructural challenge. It can be cheaper and easier to order packages from Europe than other parts of Indonesia sometimes. It will need to spend many billions for even the most basic infrastructural improvements to its roads, railways, and enough local hospitals and schools across all of its territories.

The ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences within its population also present a challenge.

There are over 1,300 ethnic groups speaking over 700 languages. It is the world’s largest muslim populated country, at approx 86.7%, although the state has 5 officially recognised religions and respects holidays from each faith.

The challenge is that Indonesia is demographically and geographically scattered. If it can overcome these challenges it will do very well for itself.

Bhinneka Tunggal Ika - political history

“Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” is old Javanese and typically translated as “unity in diversity”. It is the Indonesia national motto. As a binding ethos for a multi-ethnic, multicultural nation it’s in the right area.

Countries and empires flourish best when their citizens have something in common beyond their individual circumstances. Sometimes that’s submission to power, which tolerates differences if there’s loyalty (e.g. Roman or Mongolian Empires), or a shared guiding sense of purpose which appeals to civic, not ethnic, concepts of nationhood (e.g. the United States or European Union).

During its post-war independence, Indonesia has been a complicated mix.

The Dutch during the colonial era struggled to control the Indonesian archipelago completely. The Aceh War, fought to bring the Aceh province under Dutch power, was long and bloody (1873-1904). It took on a religious motivation with Jihadi suicide attacks. In response to guerilla warfare the Dutch wiped out entire villages and killed prisoners and civilians. As late as WW1 the Dutch had no overall control of Bali except for key ports and trade routes.

In WW2, at first the Japanese were seen as liberators. They were mostly interested in Indonesia for its resources and to stop Western powers from interfering with its goals there.

Post-war, Indonesia owed any collective identity it had to the idea of resistance against foreign colonial powers, especially the Dutch. Sukarno, Indonesia’s first independent president, was a nationalist leader during the Dutch colonial era and spent years in prison or exile. Sukarno created a lasting legacy for the way Indonesia views itself.

Unfortunately for Sukarno, he was ousted in a military coup in 1967 and his successor Suharto ruled until resigning in 1998. Suharto has left a very different kind of legacy. He was a general, and his rule was known for corruption, embezzlement, brutal, deadly oppression.

Since its post-war independence, Indonesia has seen East Timor split, and West Papua starting to peel off.

West Papuans are very different from Javans, and West Papua itself has become very important for the issue of national identity and unity. There are a lot of disparate identities, and there’s money at stake, including issues around federal money and decentralisation. West Papua is a great source of timber and minerals. Its remoteness means that the military has a great amount of power there.

East Timor breaking away makes it harder for Indonesia to let go emotionally. There’s concern that regionalism in West Papua would lead to more fracture of the whole country and there would be a domino effect.

In East Timor, the military killed many people, and troubles only died down with the independence referendum on 30-Aug-1999.

Unity as a response against the Dutch is becoming old history. Indonesia has a lot of its own internal political problems to overcome.

More recently, many found a “new hope” (Time 14-Oct-2014) in Joko Widodo’s (popularly nicknamed Jokowi) election to the presidency. It’s even remarked that he resembles Barack Obama.

The Natuna Regency consists of 272 islands, part of the Riau Islands Province, which is all undisputed land territory of Indonesia. They are approximately 2,000m away from undisputed Chinese land territory.

The problem is that Indonesia’s territorial waters claims related to the Natuna Islands overlap with China’s so-called 9 dash line claims in the South China Sea.

Indonesia is rising quickly as an important power and this is very overlooked 26-Apr-2021

Introducing the Frontier Mogul South China Sea Series

Indonesia is certainly very overlooked, and so is the rest of the South China Sea.

Approximately 80% of trade by volume, or 70% by value passes through the South China Sea (UNCTAD 14-Oct-2015), and a third of the world’s shipping (UNCTAD 14-Nov-2016).

There are many complicated, fiercely contested territorial and resource disputes.

The rising power of China makes everything more risky and complicated. Southeast Asia feels like post-war Europe before alignments began in 1945/46 for the Cold War.

Indonesia would be a great ally.


Indonesia’s population, economy, military, and regional standing are growing very quickly. It is remarkably absent from Western popular consciousness.

The population is estimated at 271,350,000, by the government which makes it the world’s 4th largest. The metropolitan area of Jakarta, the capital city, is approximately 33,430,285, is the world’s second largest urban sprawl after Tokyo at approx 37.2 million.

Indonesia has a great wealth of natural resources, including oil and natural gas, coal, copper, gold, nickel and tin. It is a large agricultural producer of rice, palm oil, tea, coffee, cacao, spices, and rubber.

Indonesia is predicted to become the world’s 4th largest economy by 2050 (World Economic Forum 06-Dec-2017), after China, India, and the US.

Most countries have China, India, and US strategies.

They should all develop Indonesia strategies right now.

Places to go, people to see - demography and geography

Indonesia is very large and diverse.

It is approximately 5,100km or 3,200mi from the Strait of Malacca to the border with Papua New Guinea, east to west. That’s about the same as the direct distance as New York to Lisbon or London to Kabul. Indonesia is a great archipelago, with more than 17,500 islands.

Its islands are tropical and mountainous.

Jokowi was from central Java and ran a furniture factory, progressively working his way up to higher and higher political offices. He had no connection to the military, and didn’t come from any kind of political dynasty, which made him more of an outsider and free from any connection to oppression and violence. His approach was also much more personable, accessible, and hands on. Jokowi would often do informal drop in sessions called “blusukan” (Jakarta Post 11-Jun-2017) at, for example, a local bureaucrats office. This was seen as very different to a type of remote, authoritarian political class, or someone who needed to use the military to get things done.

Jokowi is now in his second and final term as president. Progressive westerners might question his record on hope and change. By those standards there has been a slow erosion of certain rights in Indonesia. Some women’s rights have been reduced. Some workers’ rights have been reduced with the intention of making business easier. Some environmental provisions have been eased.

The military is not directly in power but it is still very influential. Jokowi’s political rival, Prabowo Subianto, who ran against him for the presidency twice in 2014 and 2019, is now defence minister. Subianto is a former army general, son in law of previous president Suharto, and he is strongly suspected of human rights abuses and kidnappings of critical journalists in the 90s. By appointing Subianto as Minister of Defence Jokowi has given him experience and credibility in political office where previously had none. Subianto will almost certainly be identified with military growth and reform, and with standing up to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

If the internal governing challenge of Indonesia is finding a common cause for all its islands and people, the prospects for any “new hope” look poor.

On the other hand, China may prove to be exactly the external uniting force that Indonesia needs.

Enemies domestic and foreign - military and territorial disputes

Indonesia’s armed forces are unusual for its geography.

It’s an archipelago which stretches the equivalent length of the width of the Atlantic Ocean. Indonesia’s land forces are proportionately much larger than its navy. The army is approximately 350,000 active duty personnel with 150,000 in reserve. The navy is mostly coastal vessels. It is not considered “blue-water”, that is, operational further out to sea.

The structure and balance of Indonesia’s military is historically a mixed legacy of anti-Dutch fighting, Dutch-trained, and Japanese-trained forces. It was meant for enforcing internal security. (It still is).

Indonesia’s military took a strong role in the post-war founding of the state. It has been seen as sort of naturally the organisation which runs everything. This is also because the military is used to build bridges and schools, and helps across society. It is seen a lot and everywhere.

We should expect Indonesia to make a few changes. It’s facing a challenge from China.

The main resources at stake are fish and natural gas. This is much more realistically about power.

China has been sending more and more fishing vessels into these waters, accompanied by military vessels (NYT 31-Mar-2020).

If China wants supremacy in the South China Sea then it has to push all of its claims, no matter how flimsy.

Indonesia will have to make some choices.

Get off the fence - responding to China and non-alignment

Indonesia has had the toughest response to China out of every country with disputes in the South China Sea.

Indonesia has been regularly, without legal process, blowing up illegal Chinese fishing vessels since Joko Widodo became president: 41 boats (Reuters 21-May-2015), 23 boats (WSJ 05-Apr-2016), 81 boats (Reuters 03-Apr-2017), 51 boats (Independent 04-May-2019).

In Dec-2019 about 50 Chinese military vessels kept sailing back and forth into Indonesian territorial waters around  the Natuna Islands (Maritime Executive 01-Jan-2020). This became much more public knowledge in Jan-2020. Joko Widodo visited the Natuna Islands with a military entourage (Jakarta Post 08-Jan-2020).

In the early days of his presidency, Jokowi announced his “Global Maritime Fulcrum” plan (Jakarta Post 13-Nov-2014) and its first of five key aims is to make Indonesia a “maritime culture”. The plan is supposed to build Indonesia into a “green-water” power. This would be a step up from a “brown-water”, littoral and river-based power, to having some ocean-going capability, but still below blue-water power.

It wants to be able to effectively enforce and police its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Natuna Islands and be able to launch limited regional force projection (CSIS 01-Jan-2017).

Indonesia still has work to do.

Indonesia will also have some decisions to make around its relationships in the region. Similar to the post-war years, before the Cold War really got started, it is not definite which way many Asian nations will go.

Under Sukarno, Indonesia was one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) during the Cold War in 1961.

It’s still not very aligned to the US now. It’s rebuffed US requests to host spy plans (Diplomat 20-Oct-2020). Vaccine diplomacy from China, with promises of 250 million Covid-19 vaccines (Reuters 27-Oct-2020), seems to be more attractive right now. Indonesia is also very dependent on China for trade and investment.

On the other hand, Indonesia has a strong anti-communist past. Suharto wanted post-war development money from the western powers. It took measures which put it much more clearly on the pro-US side. The Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) was once the largest in the world with approximately 3 million members in 1960. When Suharto took over approximately 500,000 were killed and 1.5 million imprisoned before the end of the decade. 

A counter to the idea that this disaligns Indonesia from China is that ideological communism hasn’t been a real factor for decades anyway. Distance in time is possibly as good a reason as any for China to be able to look past thousands of dead PKI members.

Regardless, Indonesia keeps treading between both sides.

For example, it is the de facto leader of ASEAN, an organisation based on unanimity/consensus for regional economic development. Indonesia is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) but the BRI and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are seen as obvious ways for China to try to buy influence. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) (BBC 16-Nov-2020), on the other hand, is a more multilateral free trade agreement focused on developing regional supply chains.

It is also developing a stronger relationship with India as part of India’s “Look East Policy”, which became the “Act East Policy'' (Hindu 13-Nov-2014) under PM Modi. In this spirit, Modi visited Jakarta to sign a series of 15 agreements, framing them as Indo-Pacific agreements (India TV 30-May-2018). 

Indonesia is also on the periphery of, perhaps getting drawn into, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also known as “the Quad”), a military cooperation agreement between Australia, India, Japan, and the US. The Quad is now promising to work with ASEAN (Nikkei Asia 19-Feb-2021).

There is some speculation that this is a precursor to an Asian NATO.

Tipping the scales - what next?

An Asian NATO seems unlikely to happen soon.

Chinese overreach seems to be the bigger factor in driving Indonesia toward the US than US outreach bringing it in.

Indonesia will probably try to keep balancing itself between the US and China. Relying on China for economic development and the US for security is great for Indonesia. It doesn’t seem very sustainable but that’s not very clear either. Trump may be gone but he had a point about the US paying a lot of money for little in return. Under Biden the US is still not an obviously reliable partner.

This is probably why Australia, Japan, and India are keen to work together. It seems likely this is also why Germany, France, and the UK have Indo-Pacific policies.

India and Japan are clearly not aligned with China. Neither is South Korea.

ASEAN is the next big group. Indonesia’s GDP and population today are about the same size as all other 9 ASEAN countries combined.

Indonesia could be a valuable ally. It should get more attention even if it’s just to keep it neutral.