Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sits as Indonesia President Joko Widodo drives a golf cart at the National Monument in Jakarta on May 30, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Beawiharta
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sits as Indonesia President Joko Widodo drives a golf cart at the National Monument in Jakarta on May 30, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Beawiharta

We are witnessing today an emerging club of nations whose leaders guide them more in a wisdom of patience, non-conflictual philosophy, and fusion of cultures. A bold sense of destiny directs them back to their traditions in a non-nationalist, non-isolationist way. In a world characterized more and more by old-style great-power competition, this approach could seem an oddity. But the new way of doing geopolitics gives hope that international politics is more than a one-solution, zero-sum game. Indonesia and India (and their partnership) are worth studying to understand the diversity of choices in global politics in general and in Asia in particular.

India and Indonesia share some culture and history, but they will have even more in common in the future. They are two of the most culturally and ethnically diverse countries in the world. They share a colonial background. And, most important, both seem to approach the future not from a quantitative growth perspective – the paradigm embraced by both the West and China – but by post-growth, “upward development,” in the words of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who like Modi has won a second mandate, stated the vision of transforming Indonesia’s economy into the fifth-largest in the world by 2045, we see that most of his measures are qualitative, and his five priorities for his second term are more centered on human development than on “things.” Both Modi and Widodo have put at the forefront a “prime directive” about human capital development.

In Indonesia, 42% of the population is under the age of 25, while in India the figure is 45%. Based on a philosophy that has been germinating for a couple of decades, the two countries have fixed their ambitions on leveraging the compounding effect of skilling the youth bulge, on overhauling their education systems and labor markets to account for the demographic reality, thus resulting in a knowledge and innovation premium. Further to that, in Widodo’s words, innovation should become a culture, a spiritual position also fully endorsed by Modi. Both leaders have their youth spark street protests recently and, to their credit, they are constructively trying to convert their energy into positive outcomes for their countries. The changes the two countries are seeking to implement cannot be successful without the support of the most active and dynamic part of their society.

Indonesia is now crossing a bridge between a society profoundly shaped by the Suharto era toward a more modern, agile, and open society. India has the challenge of not closing itself to the world and not descending into ethnic- and religious-based nationalism. Each country has upward of 200 million Muslims, and both countries are on a journey of learning how to integrate the diversity of faith and traditions, and dealing with an accelerating modernity. If Indonesia can learn from India about opening up to the world, India can learn from Indonesia’s Pancasila spirit of “unity in diversity.”

Widodo, after a bold positioning in 2014 of a “Global Maritime Fulcrum” aimed at transforming the country into a maritime hub, has not even mentioned it this year, triggering many analysts to criticize the apparent lack of global ambition. In fact, the contrary is true. Amid the specter of great-power competition, it is not a moment to go it alone. Indonesia has made a first and significant step toward showing its commitment to multilateralism with its 2018 Outlook over the Indo-Pacific.

This year, the country committed to strengthening both itself and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and to further developing a mesh of comprehensive economic, security, governance, political, and people-to-people architectures to keep the wider region safe. Much of that has to do with bilateral cooperation with India. But much of its global security and economic arrangements are also based on the joint and concerted actions and positions with India.

Between the two of them and their strategic partnerships, the region is well anchored in a mixture of East, West, and Third Way established and emerging powers, ranging from the US, the European Union and Saudi Arabia, to Japan, Australia, Vietnam and South Korea. Modi was criticized after withdrawing India from RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) negotiations early this month. India would love to participate in RCEP, no doubt; but it also found a way not to need to, by working together with Indonesia toward buttressing ASEAN, and expanding the understanding of the ASEAN-centered Indo-Pacific region.

Slowly but surely, ASEAN has become the main institutionalized form of Indo-Pacific cooperation. Though established powers like Japan and Australia were only peripheral in the past, now they play an enabling and supporting role to the ASEAN core, emerging powers creating this new reality, the two biggest being the India-Indonesia tandem

Slowly but surely, ASEAN has become the main institutionalized form of Indo-Pacific cooperation. Though established powers like Japan and Australia were only peripheral in the past, now they play an enabling and supporting role to the ASEAN core, emerging powers creating this new reality, the two biggest being the India-Indonesia tandem.

The questions arising from this new reality are multiple, and represent challenges to established preconceived notions of power, as well as developmental questions to the emerging leaders. How will emerging powers like India and Indonesia project their patient and non-conflictual philosophy of power in the region and present them for the world? How will they answer questions from long-established powers used to talking in Cold War terms and concepts? And will these emerging countries successfully take over the mantle of post-growth, sustainability, and human development leadership?

One key aspect for the two countries is about getting the resources to demonstrate the value of an alternative model of development. At this point, the picture is mixed. Indonesia is looking to host an ASEAN Indo-Pacific Infrastructure and Connectivity Forum in 2020. Modi’s increasingly strong relationship with Saudi Arabia will undoubtedly attract Gulf financing for innovative human and infrastructure development. MasterCard, among others, is joining the regional race for financial technology with a commitment of US$1 billion to India; and even Russian President Vladimir Putin is slated to visit Indonesia in 2020 to look at establishing a stronger relationship with potentially the world’s fifth-largest economy.

However, India is a country that has seen five straight quarters of slowing growth, government debt at 60% of gross domestic product, and a lowering of ranking by Moody’s. Even in the recent of context of the Modi government cutting its corporate tax rates, international corporations are reluctant to embrace the idea of post-growth. There is a need for the two emerging powers to get innovative and find ways out of being deeply and directly affected by international financial flows. They need to develop their own concepts of national and sovereign finance and industry, but without being perceived as disruptors. And they need to do so in partnership with countries whose economic characteristics do not count volatility and financialization among their main features.

Beyond the economic foundations of the new model, Indonesia and India, as emerging powers, have to start investing in cultural instruments to project their ideas. Established powers have long invested in instruments for having their worldview heard – from CNN and Institut Français to the Confucius Institutes. ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific have few institutions and instruments for propagating their worldview. If the likes of Japan and Singapore have NHK and CNA, how are the likes of Indonesia and India bringing the world into their cultures?

Here, creating cultural agencies could serve as a catalyst for research into cultures and historyfor developing new spiritual thought, and for supporting fresh, young, creative new cultural and spiritual manifestations. Along with the national societal and spiritual development role, it would act as a powerful global ambassador. There are very few countries in the world that have a proactive culture-creating agency, and Indonesia’s and India’s new, integrated take on development and power surely requires more explanation and promotion.

In addition to the challenges they face, the potential of India and Indonesia to contribute regionally and internationally cannot be denied. The India-Indonesia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership could transform their commitment to parliamentary democracy into a non-Western-driven geopolitical concept, a regional and global strength revolving around the fresh emergence of an authentic form of democracy that can inspire the whole region. Moreover, the Shared Vision on Maritime Cooperation could stand as the basis for ASEAN-India maritime cooperation. It is one of the most potent approaches to sovereignty and the defense of regional interests to create a regionally integrated set of standards. This elevation of ambitions would easily attract the cooperation of the European Union and Indo-Pacific partners.

Great-power competition is a tremendous opportunity for countries like India and Indonesia. Both individually and jointly, they can become a stabilizing factor in the Indo-Pacific region, to compensate for other players’ instability. As the whole world expects to see a downturn in 2020 due to the fighting of the giants, emerging powers like India and Indonesia can take over on multiple fronts: growth; manufacturing; connecting the population to the rest of the world through infrastructure and digital services; and redesigning their energy, food, health, and education systems in a way in which global crises and trade fighting no longer block the global economic flows.

India’s ambitions for the presidency of the Group of Twenty in 2022 could very well be framed under the notion of “human capital – the Indian way” – an opportunity to introduce the contours of the growth and power philosophy to the world. And this is prefaced by equally ambitious goals of starting the conversation about the reform of the United Nations for its 75th anniversary in 2021. Equally, Indonesia is gaining attention with its focus on truly becoming a maritime power.

Sooner than we think, the world will not be about five great powers, or about BRICS, or about multipolarity, but about mutuality and alternative concepts and way of doing things. This is important because, as Indian Foreign Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said at the Atlantic Council in October, “The really important relationships in the world are the less transactional ones. They are driven by global assessments and are based on strengthening each other.”

Join the Conversation


  1. Heya i am for the first time here. I found this board and I find It really
    useful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to give something back
    and help others like you aided me.

  2. My coder is trying to persuade me to move to
    .net from PHP. I have always disliked the
    idea because of the expenses. But he’s tryiong none the less.
    I’ve been using Movable-type on various websites for about a year and am worried about switching to
    another platform. I have heard very good things
    about Is there a way I can import all my wordpress
    posts into it? Any kind of help would be greatly appreciated!

Leave a comment