Journey to Indonesia I am writing this from Indonesia. That is not altogether a fair statement. I am at the moment in Bali and came from Jakarta. The two together do not come close to being Indonesia. Jakarta, the capital, is a vast, city. It is striking to me for its traffic. It takes an enormous amount of time to get anywhere in Jakarta. Like most cities, it was not built to accommodate cars, and mixed with the motor scooters that abound the city is in perpetual gridlock. It is also a city of extraordinary dynamism. There is something happening on almost every street. And in the traffic jams, you get time to contemplate those streets in detail. Bali is an island of great beauty, surrounded by beautiful waters and beaches and filled with tourists. Given that I was one of those tourists, I will not trouble you with the usual nonsense of tourists wanting to be in places where there are no tourists. The hypocrisy of tourists decrying commercialization is tedious. I am here for the beaches and for that is expensive. The locals that tourists claim to want to mingle with can’t come into the resort, and those leaving the resort will have trouble finding locals who are not making a living off of the tourists. As always, the chance of meeting a local in what tourists mean by them—people making little money in picturesque ways is not easy. What is clear in both Jakarta and Bali is that the locals are tired of picturesque poverty, however much that disappoints the tourist. They want to live better and in particular, want their children to live better. We were driven by a tour guide to some places where we bought what my wife assures me is art—my own taste in art runs to things that are in museums and tigers made of velvet. We spent the requisite money on art at places our guide delivered us to, I assume for suitable compensation. The guide was interesting. His father had worked as a rice farmer, but he owned some land. He was a tour guide, which I gather, in Bali, is not a bad job by any means if you have deals with the hotel that he undoubtedly did have. But it was his children who fascinated me. He had three sons, two of whom were of university age and were in universities. The movement from rice farmer to university student in three generations is not trivial. That it happened in the course of the leaders that Indonesia had is particularly striking, since by all reasonable measures, they have until recently been either rigidly ideological (Sukarno) are breathtakingly self-serving (Suharto and Megawatti, Sukarno’s daughter). When I looked at some of Indonesia’s economic statistics, the underlying reason emerged. Since 1998, when Indonesia had its meltdown, Indonesia’s GDP grew at roughly five percent a year, an amount substantial, consistent and above all sustainable unlike the 8 and 9 percent growth rates before the collapse. Indonesia is now the 18th largest economy in the world, ranking just behind Turkey. All of that is nice but for this: Indonesia ranks 109th in per capita gdp. Indonesia’s population is about 237 million. While its fertility rate is only 2.15, just above a stable population, being just above still means a substantial growth in population. Indonesia is a poor country, albeit not as poor as it was and rising. Given a stable government and serious efforts to control corruption, which systemically diverts wealth away from the general population—both of which are underway at the moment—the growth can continue. But whether the stability and growth— and anti-corruption efforts of the past six years can continue is an open question. And with it the tourism in Bali (recall the Islamic attacks there), the growth of Jakarta and the college education of our driver’s third son are open questions. I saw three Indonesias (and I can assure you there are hundreds more. One was the elite in Jakarta, westernized and part of the global elite you find in most capitals and which are critical for managing a country to some degree of prosperity. They will do well from that prosperity, make no mistake, but they are indispensible to it as well. I saw the upwardly mobile tour guide and driver, seeing the world change through his children’s eyes. And I saw a little girl, perhaps four, begging in traffic on the road from the airport in Bali. But I have seen these in many countries and it is difficult to know what to make of them yet. Going to Indonesia is not for me the same as going Eastern Europe. I know what is lurking behind the current there. Indonesia is new for me, and I will be back, and will describe to you not so much the country, but how I try to learn about a place I know only from books, and that relatively little. Nietzsche once said that modern man eats knowledge without hunger. What he meant by that is that he learns without passion and without necessity. I didn’t go to Indonesia without either. What interests me most about Indonesia is not its economy or its people—although both might change as I learn more. What interests me is it strategic position in the world, particularly at this point. [insert map of south china sea] China is building an aircraft carrier. Now one aircraft carrier without cruisers, destroyers, submarines, anti-missile systems, satellite targeting capabilities, midocean refueling capabilities and a thousand other things is simply a ship waiting to be sunk. Nevertheless, it could be the nucleus of something more substantial in the coming decades (not years). When I look at a map of China’s coast I am constantly struck at how contained China is. In the north, where the yellow and East China Sea provide access to Shanghai and Qingdao (the home of China’s northern naval fleet), access to the Pacific is blocked by the line Japan-Okinawa-Taiwan and the Islands between Okinawa and Japan. Bases there are not the important point. The important point is that the Chinese fleet—or merchant vessels—must pass through choke points that can be choked off by the United States hundreds of miles to the east. The situation is even worse for China in the South China Sea, which is completely boxed in by the line Taiwan-Philippines-Indonesia-Singapore. The situation gets worse for China given emerging U.S.-Vietnamese naval cooperation (the Vietnamese have no love for the Chinese. The Chinese are trying to solve this problem by building ports in Pakistan and Myanmar. They say these are for commercial use, and I believe them. Isolated ports at distance, with tenuous infrastructure connecting them to China, and with sea lane control not assured are not very useful. They work in peace time but not during war, and its war, however far fetched, that navies are built for. China’s biggest problem is not that it lacks aircraft carriers. It is that it lacks an amphibious capability. Even if it could, for example, fight its way across the Formosa Straits to Taiwan, a dubious proposition, it is no position to supply the multi-divisional force needed to conquer Taiwan. The Chinese could break their blockade by seizing Japan, Okinawa or Taiwan—but that isn’t going to happen. What could happen is China working to gain an economic toe-hold in the Philippines or Indonesia, and using that economic leverage to support political change in those countries. Should the political atmosphere change, that would not by itself permit the Chinese navy to break into the Pacific nor eliminate the American ability to blockade Chinese merchant ships. The U.S. doesn’t need land bases to control the passages through either countries from a distance. Rather, what would change the game is if China, having reached an economic entente with either country, were granted basic privileges there. That would permit Chinese ships to engage the U.S. Navy outside the barrier formed by the archipelagos, putting aircraft and missiles on the Islands, and force the U.S. Navy back, allowing free passage. Now, this becomes much more complicated when we consider U.S. countermeasures, and the Chinese already have massive anti-ship missiles on its east coast. The weakness of these missiles is intelligence and reconnaissance. In order to use those missiles the Chinese have to have a general idea of where their targets are, and ships move a lot. That reconnaissance must come from survivable aircraft (aircraft that won’t be destroyed when they approach the U.S. Fleet) and space based reconnaissance—along with the sophisticated information architecture needed to combine the sensor with the shooter. The U.S. tends to exaggerate the strength of enemies. This is a positive trait as it means extra exertion. In the Cold War the estimate of Soviet capabilities outstripped Soviet realities. There are many nightmare scenarios about China’s capabilities circulating, but we suspect that most are overstated. China’s ambitions outstrip its capabilities. Still, you prepare for the worst and hope for the best. In this case, the primary battlefield is not yet the passages through the Archipelago. It is the future of our driver’s third child. If he gets to go to college, the likelihood of Indonesia succumbing to Chinese deals are limited. The history of Chinese-Indonesian relations is not particularly good and little short of desperation would force an alliance. American Pacific strategy should be based on making certain that neither Indonesia nor the Philippines are desperate. Indonesia has another dimension, of course. It is the largest Muslim country in the world, and one that has harbored and defeated a significant Jihadist terrorist group. As al Qaeda crumbles, the Jihadist movement may endure. The United States has an ongoing interest in this war and therefore it has an interest in Indonesian stability and its ability to suppress radical Islam inside Indonesia and, above all, prevent the emergence of an Indonesian-based al Qaeda with an intercontinental capability. Indonesia, therefore, becomes a geopolitical focus of three forces—China, Islamists and the United States. This isn’t the first time it has been a focus of history. In 1941, Japan launched the attack on Pearl Harbor in order to paralyze the American fleet there, and facilitate seizing what was then called the Netherlands East Indies for its supplies of oil and other raw materials. In the first real resource war—World War II—Indonesia was a pivot. Similarly, during the Cold War, the possibility of a Communist Indonesia was frightening enough to the U.S. that it ultimately supported the removal of Sukarno as President. Indonesia has mattered in the past and it matters now. The issue is how to assure a stable Indonesia. If the threat—however smallrests in China, so does the solution. Chinese wage rates are surging and Chinese products are becoming less competitive in the global marketplace. The Chinese have wanted to move up the economic scale from an exporter of low cost industrial products to the production of advanced technology. As the recent crash of China’s high speed train shows, it has a long way to go to achieve that goal. But there is no question but that China is losing its export edge in low grade industrial products. One of the reasons that Western investors liked China was that a single country and a single set of relationship allowed them to develop production facilities that could supply them with products. All the other options aside from India, which has its own problems, can only handle a small fraction of China’s output. Indonesia, with nearly a quarter billion people still in a low wage state, can handle more. The political risk has declined in the last few years substantially. If it continues to drop, Indonesia becomes an attractive alternative to China at a time when Western companies are looking for alternatives. That would energize Indonesia’s economy, and further stabilize the regime. A more stable Indonesian regime would remove any attraction for alignment with China and would also remove opportunities for Chinese or Islamic subversion—even if in the latter case prosperity is not enough to eliminate it. When we look at a map we see the importance of Indonesia. When we look at basic economic statistics we see the strength and weakness of Indonesia. When we consider the role of China in the world economy and its current problems, we see Indonesia’s opportunities. But it comes down to this, if my driver’s third son can go to university, and little girls no longer dart in traffic to beg, Indonesia has a strong future, and that depends on it becoming the low cost factory to the world. Life is more complex than that by far, but it is the beginning of understanding the possibilities. In the end, few rational people looking at China in 1975 would have anticipated China in 2011. That unexpected leap is what Indonesia needs and what will determine its geopolitical role. But these are first thoughts on Indonesia. I will need to come back here many times for any conclusions.