Skip navigation
The Australian National University

Indonesia’s Ascent: Power, Leadership and Asia’s Security Order

Lead Investigators: Dr Christopher Roberts, Dr Derry Habir, and Associate Professor Leonard Sebastian


Abstract: As Indonesia’s economy grows, it is increasingly being referred to as a rising middle power and there is mounting speculation that Indonesia might eventually join the ranks of Asia’s great powers. Regardless of just how far Indonesia will rise, its government and the will of its people will become increasingly influential in terms of its regional leadership and the values and norms Jakarta espouses. What are the domestic opportunities and constraints that inform Indonesia’s rise and how will various domestic contexts affect Indonesia’s foreign policy and the values it espouses? Meanwhile, the image of Indonesia as a more stable and democratic nation has contributed to a significant deepening of security ties with some other nations (such as Australia) and these nations may well grasp the opportunity to continue doing so as Indonesia rises. But how might this be perceived amongst our other Southeast Asian neighbours and how might this affect our relations with them? Within Southeast Asia, what will the rise of a more independent and potentially assertive Indonesia mean for the future of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)? Will it serve to strengthen this body as Indonesia adopts what many regard as its natural leadership role or will it threaten ASEAN’s continued viability as a more assertive and independent Indonesia opts increasingly to ‘go it alone.’ And what will Indonesia’s rise mean for the Asian balance of power more generally? Will the Indonesian archipelago, for instance, become a theatre for great power competition? Will a rising Indonesia substantially influence the Asian balance by siding with either the US or China? Or might Jakarta seek to maintain an equidistant position between them, thereby acting as a Southeast Asian ‘swing state’? In this project, Dr Christopher Roberts (Senior Lecturer, National Security College, ANU), Dr Derry Habir (Rsearch Director, School of Government and Public Policy, Jakarta) and Associate Professor Leonard Sebastian (Head, Indonesian Studies Program, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies) explore these questions for the purpose of producing the following three outputs:

  • An accessible high quality and policy relevant ‘occasional paper’ for distribution within the Indonesian and Australian national security communities;
  • The publication (NSC website) of a series of individual issue briefs that have been written by experts from Australia, Indonesia, and Asia.
  • A high quality edited book based on expanded versions of the aforementioned issue briefs.

Indonesia's Ascent conferences

As part of the NSC research project, Dr Christopher Roberts, Dr Derry Habir, and Associate Professor Leonard Sebastian convened two conferences and two author’s workshops in both Jakarta and Canberra. The presenters and commentators represented a broad range of experts from Indonesia, Australia, and Singapore. Both conferences were attended by embassy officials, government officers, relevant academics, think tanks and the media. The two conferences were held in January (Jakarta) and February (Canberra) 2013.

Conference booklet: Indonesia's Ascent Canberra Conference Booklet 2.1MB

NSC inaugural ‘Issue Brief’ series

The historical foundations of Indonesia’s regional and global role, 1945-75


  • By Sue Thompson (National Security College, Australian National University)
  • Issues: Since Indonesia’s declaration of independence in August 1945, Jakarta quickly acted to consolidate its sovereignty and, in the process, assert its leadership on issues such non-interference in each other’s internal affairs through the hosting of forums such as Bandung Conference and by becoming a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Indeed, Indonesia’s size and power has meant that most initiatives for regional cooperation have failed in the absence of its participation. Moreover, in the case of Southeast Asia, it was only through regional reconciliation with Indonesia that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could be created. Within ASEAN, Indonesia soon became known as ‘the first among equals’ or its ‘natural born leader’. This chapter assesses the historical basis for Indonesia’s importance as well as the manner by which it has traditionally exercised its leadership in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Indonesia: The economic foundations of security


  • By Dr Satish Mishra (Director, Strategic Asia, Jakarta)
  • Issues: Indonesia’s GDP, in purchasing power parity terms, has now surpassed that of Australia’s. The Indonesian economy also demonstrated strong resilience in the face of the global financial crisis (2009: 4.6% growth) and has since continued to grow at an average of 6.3% per annum (DFAT). This paper will examine the key drivers and challenges to economic growth that will be likely to affect Indonesian power over the next twenty years. How sustainable will this growth be in the future? To what extent will Indonesia serve as an economic powerhouse for its neighbours and/or the Indo-Pacific in the future?

Democratic achievement and policy paralysis: Implications for Indonesia's continued ascent


  • By Dr Stephen Sherlock (Director, Center for Democratic Institutions, ANU)
  • Issues: Indonesia today is facing its third historic transition since the end of the Suharto regime. The first was the transition to democratic elections in 1999 and the second occurred with the change to a directly elected presidency in 2004. The third will take place in 2014 when the first entire cycle of a two-term directly elected presidency ends and the transition to a new popularly elected administration takes place. This paper raises the question of whether Indonesia’s political parties, the official recruiting ground for presidential candidates, are equipped to put forward a choice of credible candidates for national leadership to the electorate. The paper concludes that problems inside all the parties, including money politics, dynastic ambitions and policy-making weakness, may produce a selection of unpopular and uninspiring presidential candidates. Indonesia after 2014 may be led by a president with little authority, dependent on an unwieldy coalition, and even more indecisive in policy terms than the current SBY administration.

Politics, security and defence in Indonesia: interactions and interdependencies


  • By Iis Gindarsah (Centre for Security and International Studies, Jakarta)
  • Issues: As Indonesia’s economy grows, so too will its military power. However, the nature of this trajectory will also be shaped by the country’s internal politics and the security issues to which it prioritises – whether at home or abroad. This issue brief examines the likely interaction between politics, security and defence and how these dynamics may influence the trajectory of Indonesian power over the next twenty or so years.

Security fault lines: unresolved issues and new challenges


  • By Robert Lowry (Independent Researcher)
  • Issues: Indonesia’s government and its people continue to be confronted by a broad array of security issues that have the potential to undermine not only the stability of Indonesia but also its continued rise in the future. This issue brief examines the key security fault lines – some new and some long-term – that Indonesia will likely face or will need to face in order to sustain its continued momentum as a rising power.

The foreign policy nexus: National interests, political values and identity


  • By Dr Avery Poole (School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne)
  • Issues: This chapter will examine the manner and extent to which Indonesia’s foreign policy will be influenced by domestic factors in the future. For example, under what circumstances and in what areas will the Indonesian government’s interests shape or be shaped by popular opinion? Further, what impact will Indonesia’s democratic identity have on its foreign relations and what other factors are likely to affect its national interests and formulation of foreign policy?

Normative priorities and contradicitons in Indonesia's foreign policy: From Wawasan Nusantra to democracy


  • By Adit Batara Gunawan, Muhammad Tri Andika Kurniawan, and Derry Habir
  • Issues: The domestic nexus to Indonesia’s foreign policy has already led to greater activism in shaping norms and values concerning issues such as greater religious tolerance and the environment. In this context, the chapter examines the likely role and influence Indonesia will have on these issues (and possible others) in the future.

Indonesia in international institutions: Living up to ideals


  • By Dr Yulius Purwadi Hermawan (Department of International Relations, Parahyangan University, Bandung)
  • Issues: Greater Indonesian power will have both an ideational and material impacts on the government’s influence in global institutions such as the UN, NAM, and the G20. What will Indonesia want and how effective will it be in its attempt to shape the agenda and interests of these international institutions?

Indonesia and the Law of the Sea: Beyond the archipelagic outlook


  • By Associate Professor Leonard Sebastian (S. Rajaratnam School of International Relations), Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto (S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies), and I Made Andi Arsana (Gadjah Mada University)
  • Issues: Indonesia’s territory covers a vast archipelago that includes 6,000 inhabited islands. Consequently, Indonesia’s control of the sea, developments concerning the Law of the Sea and maritime sovereignty, represent crucial national interests. However, Indonesia’s maritime security has been challenged by transnational crime, terrorist groups, irregular migration, and conflicting territorial claims by other nations as far as China. This paper examines how these key challenges will affect Indonesia’s rise and how Indonesia’s national interests will evolve in response to them.

Indonesia and the democratic middle powers: A new basis for collaboration?


  • By Professor Mark Beeson and Will Lee (Department of Political Science and International Relations, the University of Western Australia)
  • Issues: As noted above, the emergence of a democratic identity and associated values has had (and will continue to have) a tangible impact on the nature of Indonesia’s foreign policy. This paper examines the extent to which such values could potentially lead to interest harmonisation and foreign policy coordination with other likeminded middle powers in the Indo-Pacific – such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, and/or India.

Australia's relations with Indonesia: Progress despite economic and socio-cultural constraints?


  • By Dr Derry Habir (School of Government and Public Policy, Jakarta) and Dr Christopher Roberts (Australian National University)
  • Issues: Following various intelligence leaks by Edward Snowden in late 2013, the relationship between Australia and Indonesia has again become the subject of significant media attention. However, relations had been flourishing prior to these leaks with the breadth and depth of security cooperation stronger than at any time prior. This NSC Issue Brief analyses both the contemporary areas of progress as well as the issues that challenge the relationship. In the case of the latter, the causal dynamics include an interdependent mix of weak societal and economic relations. Aside from the need to strengthen awareness about Indonesia and Asia’s societies and economies in the long term, the paper argues there is an immediate need to resolve the current disagreement over the nature of Australian intelligence intercepts, the policy approach to irregular migration, and the associated incursions into Indonesian waters. 

Key intra-ASEAN bilateral relationships: opportunities and challenges


  • By Dr Yongwook Ryu (Department of International Relations, Australian National University)
  • Issues: Indonesia is equally critical to several intra-ASEAN bilateral relationships but, as with Australia, such relations have at times been turbulent. The chapter examines the possible opportunities and challenges that Indonesia’s rise may entail in the future vis-à-vis countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

Indonesia in ASEAN: Mediation, leadership and extra-mural diplomacy


  • By Erlina Widyaningsih (Kemlu, Jakarta) and Dr Christopher B Roberts (NSC, Australian National University)
  • Indonesia has long been said to be the ‘natural born leader’ or ‘first among equals within ASEAN’. Indeed, the end of konfrontasi and Indonesia’s willingness to join ASEAN was critical to ASEAN’s formation. While Indonesia was perceived to have lost its leadership role following the collapse of Suharto’s New Order regime, Indonesia has once again become an active leader in ASEAN following the reconsolidation of stability, economic growth, and democratic values. Because of these considerations and those of earlier papers, this paper assesses the extent, likely directions, and implications of Indonesia’s future leadership in ASEAN. Will ASEAN be strengthened by Indonesia’s rise or will Indonesia eventually find the need to ‘go it alone’?

Indonesia among the powers: Should ASEAN still matter to Indonesia?


  • By Associate Professor Tan See Seng (S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies)
  • Issues: Indonesia is the world’s most populated Muslim nation. While it is also a founding member of the non-aligned movement (NAM), the consolidation of a more stable and democratic system of governance has positive implications for the future of Indonesia’s relations with Western and/or democratic powers – such as Japan and the US. Meanwhile, as Indonesia’s economy grows there is mounting speculation that Indonesia might even eventually join the ranks of Asia’s great powers. What will Indonesia’s rise mean for the Asian balance of power more generally? Will the Indonesian archipelago, for instance, become a theatre for great power competition? Will a rising Indonesia substantially influence the Asian balance by siding with either the US or China? On the other hand, might Jakarta seek to maintain an equidistant position between them, thereby acting as a Southeast Asian ‘swing state’?

Edited book through Palgrave Macmillan (forthcoming, 2014)

Structure: The ‘Issue Briefs’ will be expanded to 7,000 word chapters and will incorporate the reviews from the commentators as well as the deliberations that occurred during the two conferences in Jakarta and Beijing.

(L-R) Foreign Minister Raden Mohammad Marty Muliana Natalegawa, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and Dr Christopher Roberts (NSC)

(L-R) Foreign Minister Raden Mohammad Marty Muliana Natalegawa, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and Dr Christopher Roberts (NSC).

Updated:  22 May 2014/ Responsible Officer:  Head of College, National Security College/ Page Contact:  Web administrator, National Security College