Indonesia in Asia’s Changing Balance of Power

Indonesia in Asia’s Changing Balance of Power

Southeast Asia’s largest state and the de facto leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia has long served as a linchpin of regional order. More recently, Jakarta’s status has risen even higher as concern over China leads countries such as the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Australia to strengthen ties with Indonesia. Yet China’s attempts to stake its own claims to regional leadership pose a direct challenge to Indonesia, while China’s development of a blue-water navy and its claims to virtually the entire South China Sea directly threaten Indonesian interests. As a result, Indonesia has found it increasingly difficult to play its traditional mediating role within ASEAN.

Indonesia’s key interests in Southeast Asia are to promote stability and ensure that the region retains its autonomy from great power influence. In the broader Asia-Pacific, Indonesia seeks what Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa calls a “dynamic equilibrium” in which “there is not one preponderant country.” Indonesia has historically used ASEAN as a tool to pursue these goals, and Jakarta’s purported ability to lead ASEAN is an important source of its international influence. Accordingly, Indonesia has a major interest in ensuring that regional architecture is built upon ASEAN, thereby giving its members agenda-setting influence and helping prevent their domination by larger powers.

As an archipelagic state sitting astride vital sea lines of communication connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Indonesia prioritizes protecting the sovereignty of its waters. As a nation of 17,000 islands that lacks the military capacity to protect itself, Indonesia has a strong interest in ensuring that major naval powers abide by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Thus, China’s naval advances and its designation of its South China Sea territorial claims as a “core” interest directly threaten Indonesia.

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