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Is Indonesia Destined To Become A World Power?

September 10, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Just months after securing his second term in office, President Joko Widodo set forth a bold plan that might reshape the country’s future. On August 26 the Indonesian leader declared a new capital will be established in East Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, to save Jakarta from an awful fate: being swallowed by the sea, among other woes.

For decades Indonesia’s present capital has been plagued by floods as urban sprawl pushed down on the soft clay underneath it. With precious groundwater drained by human consumption, entire swathes of the metropolis are below sea level, threatening millions.

Although it’s unclear how the new capital will look other than official reassurances of a “green” and “smart” city, the entire effort is rich in symbolism. Foremost is how its location at the center of Indonesia’s vast archipelago, close to the border with Malaysia, and just hours away by plane from the Philippines; two neighbors and close allies. More than a national ideology, regional unity is an idea originating before the formation of ASEAN in 1967. Indeed, soon after the conception of Malay nationalism in the 19th century there followed a profound awareness that a historic kinship existed in the region.

There’s also the Indonesian government’s desire to foster economic growth beyond the island of Java, where half the country’s nominal GDP comes from. (Aside from the fact 154 million citizens live in the island.) With the establishment of a new capital from 2024 onward, the resulting construction activities and migration can give Kalimantan a new prominence, more so when Indonesia hosts ASEAN leaders for the organization’s annual summits. One veteran journalist and author based in Hong Kong applauds Widodo’s commitment to the plan but cautions how matters can go overboard. Writing for Asia Sentinel, Bowring cites two specific risks: establishing enough road and rail links for the new city and tempering its architectural flourishes.

In his latest book Empire of the Winds the author Bowring places Indonesia’s island expanse at the epicenter of his Nusantarian thesis: a shared yet varied civilization has always existed on the edge of Eurasia, spread over a great archipelago and serving as a vital enabler for world trade. The book proves a magisterial attempt at deep history and a recurring thread in its 336 pages is the importance of the great archipelago, in other words, Indonesia’s present geography. Formed by the glacial melt and rising seas of the the last Ice Age, the islands known today as Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Sulawesi and New Guinea received migrating Austronesian communities whose adeptness at navigation and seafaring allowed them to flourish for 2,000 years.

These masters of trade and naval warfare are Bowring’s cherished Nusantarians who absorbed foreign religion and culture (from India and the Middle East) as they built maritime trading empires. Bowring does revisit the legacies of the mysterious Srivijaya and the better known Majapahits, whose cultural impact later contributed to the Indonesian and Malaysian national identities, and laments how European imperialism and its raw industrial strength almost wiped out Nusantaria’s role in the global economy. But not without a fight, however, as Bowring recounts instances when Nusantarian technology challenged bold European forays. During the Portuguese attempt to seize Malacca their finest carrack the Frol de Mar was at a disadvantage against a gigantic Malaccan warship.

Bowring is hopeful about Nusantaria’s future with the advantages of large populations and modern high tech economies. These traits are unmistakably pronounced when it comes to Indonesia, with its 270 million people and the world’s 16th largest economy, and is driving the current fad for guessing its future. Unfortunately, the very idea of a “world power” owes more to perception than tangible metrics. Whether it’s economic size, military strength, financial largess, or influencing neighbors, the criteria for being a strong country is paradoxical, at once well-defined and ill-defined. Sure, Mexico and South Korea are economic giants in their own right, but are they powerful countries?

Clearly, Indonesia’s fate is unwritten and having a new capital city doesn’t always portend a brilliant future. But what’s undeniable is its own deep history, one that spans uncounted ages and millennia, and the permanence of its seaborne trade. Asia’s enchanting southern archipelago achieved greatness before and it can become great again in the most authentic sense. For now, there’s Bowring’s Empire to remind us that Nusantaria and its people matter.

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