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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
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
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
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
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.
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