The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Pay attention to Indonesia. It will help determine the future of Asia.

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, left, shakes hands with Indonesian Armed Forces Chief Gen. Andika Perkasa at Indonesian military headquarters in Jakarta on July 24. (Achmad Ibrahim/AP)

It’s hard to think of another country as big and important as Indonesia that is so completely ignored by the American public.

With a population of 274 million, it is the fourth-largest country in the world, the third-most populous democracy, and the most populous Muslim-majority country. (It has seven times as many Muslims as Saudi Arabia.) It is the world’s largest producer of nickel and could become the second-largest producer of cobalt — two of the minerals needed for making electric vehicle batteries. It dominates one of the world’s most strategically important waterways — the Straits of Malacca, linking the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Most of China’s energy supplies pass through the Straits. Little wonder that Indonesia has become a fulcrum of U.S.-China competition.

Yet how many Americans could name the president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi)? Americans generally only pay attention to news from Indonesia when there are either man-made disasters (e.g., the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people) or natural disasters (e.g., the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 200,000 ). Few Americans have visited any part of the vast archipelago other than Bali, one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations and the setting of no less than two Julia Roberts movies.

Until recently I, too, had been lamentably ignorant about Indonesia. I am now a little less ignorant after having traveled around that sprawling country for a couple of weeks and afterward talking to experts about its future.

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My journey began in Jakarta, a sprawling city of more than 10 million people that has some of the worst traffic jams I have ever encountered. Then it was off to central Java to see Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world, located in a rural area with so few Western visitors that Indonesian school kids visiting the temple were lining up to take photos with me as if I were a visiting movie star. Next up were obligatory stops in Bali, albeit a part of Bali far removed from the honky-tonks of Kuta Beach, a surfer mecca. And, finally, a visit to the tiny, sparsely inhabited Mojo Island, which I could only reach during a storm by hitching a ride over choppy waters on a small local cargo boat without any seats or navigational instruments. Even months later I can still hear the deafening roar of the boat’s diesel engines — and still see Mojo’s hauntingly beautiful jungles and waterfalls.

Like every visitor, I was struck by Indonesia’s bewildering diversity: It has 1,300 ethnic groups speaking 700 languages spread across roughly a thousand inhabited islands. While nearly 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslims, the nation also has 245 native religions and a secular state.

As the travel writer Elizabeth Pisani noted in her invaluable book, “Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation," there is little that unites the people of Aceh at the northwestern end of Indonesia with those in West Papua, some 3,200 miles to the southeast: “The people of Papua and those of Aceh eat different foods, pray to different gods, play different music and are of different races. In between, a riot of other cultures is adapting ancient traditions to modern times in wildly different ways.”

Yet, somehow, with a few notable exceptions such as East Timor’s secession in 2002, Indonesia has stayed together since winning its freedom from Dutch rule after World War II. (A separatist movement in Papua is still fighting against a brutal military occupation.) It has even become a democracy. In 1998, President Suharto, who had been in power since the late 1960s, was forced to step down amid the Asian economic crisis. Freedom House rates it only “partly free” and Transparency International reports that corruption is getting worse. But it hasn’t succumbed to military rule like Myanmar and Thailand — or to a populist demagogue like India.

While Indonesia has not produced an economic miracle like smaller Asian countries such as Singapore, it has grown at a steady clip for decades. Indeed, the Economist notes, “In the past decade [it] has grown faster than any other $1 trillion-plus economy except China and India.” It is no longer a poor country. With per capita gross domestic product of $4,332, it now meets the World Bank’s definition of an upper-middle-income country.

Indonesia’s growing prosperity is evident in Jakarta, a city of skyscrapers that looks nothing like the impoverished metropolis teeming with beggars depicted in Peter Weir’s evocative film “The Year of Living Dangerously,” set in 1965. Of course, there is still terrible poverty in the countryside with no equal in the modern West. Villagers in Mojo do not have indoor plumbing or paved roads.

Indonesia’s vast population, strategic location and growing prosperity should position it for regional and even global influence, but it punches below its weight internationally. Jokowi, a former mayor, shows little interest in foreign policy; his focus is on economic development. To the extent that Indonesia engages abroad, it is usually through multilateral organizations such as ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), which Indonesia chairs this year.

Back in the 1950s, Indonesia’s founding strongman, Sukarno, made the country a pillar of the nonaligned movement composed of countries that refused to choose sides in the Cold War. Following the traumas of colonialization first by the Dutch and then the Japanese, most Indonesians vowed to keep their distance from the big powers.

Today, like most other Asian states, Indonesia is trying to triangulate between Beijing and Washington. China is its largest trading partner but also its largest security threat: Like many other states in Southeast Asia, Indonesia disputes China’s claim over its territorial waters in the South China Sea. The United States can be a valuable ally in protecting Indonesia’s territorial integrity.

Hence Indonesia’s bifurcated foreign policy: While China is investing billions of dollars in projects such as a new high-speed rail line between Jakarta and Bandung, the Indonesian military in August joined the U.S.-led Super Garuda Shield military exercise involving 5,000 troops from 14 nations.

Evan Laksmana, a researcher at Singapore's National University, told me that the United States “doesn’t have moral standing in Indonesia because of its support for Suharto,” who came to power amid a purge of Communists that resulted in at least 500,000 deaths. “U.S. talk of a rules-based order seems hollow.” At least one American, however, is wildly popular: A number of Indonesians told me how much they like former president Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Jakarta.

While Indonesians aren’t enamored of the United States, most are hardly fans of China, either. Ethnic Chinese Indonesians are often resented for being wealthier than other Indonesians, and China’s ostensibly Communist system is anathema to pious Muslims. “In the 1950s and 1960s, it was damaging to be called a U.S. stooge,” Laksmana said. “That’s not an issue anymore. But to be called a Chinese lackey today is damaging.”

The Biden administration is aware of the importance of Indonesia and is working to cultivate closer ties. Both President Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited in November, and the United States is looking to expand cooperation on everything from counterterrorism and maritime security to green energy and cybersecurity. While Indonesia doesn’t want to join an alliance to contain China, it is working closely with Washington on other priorities, such as restoring democracy in Myanmar.

A senior U.S. defense official told me: “It’s a really important country and this year in particular, with its ASEAN chairmanship, it’s an important year for people to pay a lot of attention to a country that is a leading power not only in Southeast Asia but also globally.” Indonesia deserves more attention not only from U.S. policymakers but also from the public. It will have a large say in determining the future of Asia.