Why Indonesia matters
October-December 2014
By: Amitav Acharya

Indonesia is an emerging power of the 21st century, in both Asia and the world, but it is not moving that way in the traditional manner of other powers. The term “emerging powers” recognizes the growing status – primarily economic but also political and strategic – of a specific group of nations. Most, if not all of them, were once categorized (and in some cases still are) as part of the “third world” or “global south.”

Indonesia belongs in this category. It is the fourth-most populous country in the world, after China, India and the United States. It is also the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and the third-largest democracy. Its economy is currently the 16th largest in the world (although one more recent estimate puts it at number 10), and McKinsey & Company, the global consulting firm, has estimated that it could become the seventh largest by 2030. Since the fall of the Soeharto dictatorship in 1998, Indonesia has held three direct presidential elections, all of which were judged to be free and fair. Between 2000 and 2010, its economic growth surpassed all other emerging economies except China and India, and was ahead of Russia, Brazil, and South Africa, which make up the other BRICS countries.

But the Indonesian story suggests it is taking a different path to emerging-power status than other nations. This path is not based so much on military strength or economic resources; rather, it lies in the ability of a country to develop a positive, virtuous correlation of three factors: democracy, development and stability, while pursuing a foreign policy of restraint toward neighbors and active engagement with the world at large. This is the key lesson from the story of Indonesia that this essay seeks to present.

Indonesia has achieved its growing status in global affairs in a very different manner than other emerging powers in the developing world, including the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Two things set Indonesia apart. First, while the rise of other BRICS countries was related to, first and foremost, economic growth and military spending, Indonesia came in on the back of democratization and regional engagement. Each of the BRICS is a significant military power, some regionally and others such as China and Russia globally.

Even non-BRICS emerging powers such as South Korea, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia had acquired significant regional economic and military clout before their diplomatic and political contributions came to be recognized. Indonesia is sometimes compared with the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, or with Australia and Canada, which are called “middle powers.” But these are wealthy Western nations, and some, such as Sweden and Australia, possess significant military power.

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