Indonesia's foreign policy limitations

Indonesia's foreign policy limitations

Former Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri's confirmation earlier last month that popular Jakarta governor Joko Widodo will be her party's presidential candidate reminds us that Indonesia will soon have a new leader. The end of the decade-long Yudhoyono era poses questions for Singapore about what kind of neighbour Indonesia will be under its new president.

The issue takes on additional interest for Singapore in the wake of its row with Indonesia over the naming of the Usman-Harun frigate. The incident prompted some to conclude that Indonesia is becoming more assertive.

Certainly, Indonesia is well aware of its rising prominence in international affairs in recent years, a prominence it has achieved through successful democratisation and rapid economic growth. Indonesia's new status in the world, including international interest in Indonesian ideas on global problems, has been a recurring theme in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's annual independence day addresses. Dr Yudhoyono also told military officers last year that Indonesia must have a larger and more modern military than its neighbours in view of its extensive territory.

The possibility that Mr Prabowo Subianto - Mr Joko's leading rival - might become president makes many doubly wary. A former general with a chequered human rights record who now leads a nationalist party, Mr Prabowo derives his popular appeal from his image as a strong leader.

Opinion polls, however, suggest that apprehensions regarding a Prabowo presidency will not be put to the test. He has polled well behind Mr Joko for more than a year. And only four months remain until the presidential election for Mr Prabowo to bridge the gap. Moreover, even if Mr Prabowo were to become president, he would face real resource limitations should he try to make Indonesia a more assertive regional power.

Indonesia's current rise is starting from a low base, a fact that is easy to overlook given its global profile. A decade of growth averaging 5.7 per cent per annum has seen Indonesia become the world's 16th-largest economy, with most projections seeing it rising higher. But this growth has not translated into significant military or economic resources.

Indonesia spends less on its military annually than does Singapore, and only around a third of what Australia spends. It has fallen well short of its target of spending 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product on defence. Observers expect its military to modernise only in a piecemeal fashion over the next decade.

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