Obama and Romney Take Note: This Asian and Muslim Country Will Be Critical to Foreign Policy For Years to Come

With a population of nearly 250 million people, Indonesia is perhaps the largest country Americans know least about. Mention Jakarta, a megacity of at least 25 million people, and some may not even recognize the name of the capital of the world’s most populous Muslim nation and the world’s third-largest democracy. 

Yet their secular state expands over 17,500 islands situated within the geographic width of the continental United States. Although over 700 languages are spoken throughout the archipelago, the national language of Bahasa Indonesia, used in the media, education, and as a lingua franca, has facilitated the national integration of a remarkably diverse array of peoples and ethnicities.

Beyond Indonesia’s sheer immensity, however, Americans should be interested in the country for several reasons, wisely following the Obama administration’s decision to enact the U.S.–Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership in 2010, which aims to aid and increase a number of strategic initiatives and programs between the two countries (such as the Critical Language Scholarship which I recently benefited from).

As the largest economy in Southeast Asia, Indonesia has enjoyed average annual GDP growth rates of around 6% over the last several years. Some have even argued that Indonesia deserves a place in the BRICs acronym (hence becoming BRIICs), given the huge potential the country represents.  

Although issues such as under-developed infrastructure and rampant corruption are serious obstacles for sustained economic growth, a recent consumer boom is an optimistic sign. Amazingly, Indonesia’s middle-class, only 1.6 million in 2004 will grow to an estimated 150 million by 2014. At trendy, Western-themed cafés frequented by the youth, smart phones, laptops, and iPads seem to outnumber people — how else are they supposed to blog, write college essays, and post pictures of their multi-colored desert drinks on Facebook?

For an America looking to build its reputation and image in the Muslim world after democracy-building debacles such as Iraq, Indonesia, with well over 200 million adherents to the faith, should be seen as low-hanging fruit. Only one province, Aceh (which is referred to by many as “the Veranda of Mecca”), is under sharia law, and Islam in Indonesia is widely syncretic, having mixed with a plethora of rich Buddhist, Hindu, and animistic cultural traditions that had developed over centuries long before Arab traders began to spread their monotheistic religion throughout the archipelago in the 13th century.

With a somewhat more liberal interpretation of Islam and growing economic prosperity in the region, radicalism is few and far between compared to places like the Middle East (though it certainly still exists, as evidenced by organizations such as the Islamic Defenders Front). As a robust (albeit often corrupt) democracy with a large number of Muslim (and non-Muslim) civic institutions, however, Indonesia should be seen as unique place to further meaningful dialogue with the wider Muslim world.  

Geographically, Indonesia is incredibly relevant considering its unique location between the Indian and Pacific Oceans connected by the Strait of Malacca which narrows to only 1.7 miles wide near Singapore and carries through it around 40% of world trade (which is estimated to rise to 50% by 2020). Yet defense spending is comparatively low and often concerned with internal threats rather than focused on the broader position of Indonesia being in the middle of other rising powers to the east and west. In his book Monsoon: the Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Robert D. Kaplan argues that this strategic location and “institutional weakness” will only further Indonesia’s importance on the geo-political world stage.

Given Indonesia’s growing importance and relevancy in our world, why is the country still so relatively obscure to the average American as opposed to the countries entrenched by the BRIC acronym? At over five times as populous as Indonesia, perhaps China and India do deserve to be front-and-center in our understanding of the Eastern Hemisphere. Brazil, for its own part, is a decidedly Western country that has become increasingly more well-known over the last decade due to its geographic proximity, strong political leadership, and cultural similarity to the U.S. (think of Brazil as the "America" of South America). Indonesia is only now starting to catch up. 

The country is, after all, a nation of islands whose utter geography at first glance seems to scream seclusion and isolationism from the rest of the world. Yet with the second highest amount of Facebook users of any country up until earlier this year (thanks to Brazil and India), Indonesia is the striking opposite of insular. 

So, if you're looking for an accessible entrance into the Muslim world or want to gain a foothold in Asia by learning an essential regional language at a mere fraction of the time it takes to learn Mandarin Chinese, choose Indonesia. America and the rest of the world will soon take notice. There are obstacles to overcome, but look at the numbers, and look at the geography. My bet’s on Indonesia.

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Tobin Fulton

Tobin is a recent Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Tulane University, where he wrote his final thesis as an ethnography of foreign assistance to a cultural group in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. Tobin also founded a Tulane chapter of Manna Project International, leading several international service trips to Latin America. After graduation, he received a Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State for intensive language study of Indonesian in order to gain additional expertise in a large, emerging economy in the tropics. Tobin speaks Portuguese, Spanish, and Indonesian. Follow him on Twitter @TobinFulton.

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