American Basing in Asia: Taking the Cow by the Horns

Last month, the new Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, General David Berger released his initial planning guidance. In it, Berger takes on the tough issues and makes trade-offs, offering up for slaughter one institutional sacred cow after another and makes a case for a renewed focus on increasing Marine Corps integration with the U.S. Navy. However, one grizzled steer somehow escaped the knife: the antiquated forward basing construct in the Western Pacific. While not purely a Marine Corps issue, the legacy American basing construct for Okinawa, Japan, and other locations in and around the so-called first and second island chains, no longer makes sense for reasons including security, public relations, and perhaps most importantly, naval integration.

The Sacred Cow

Strategic American bases in Okinawa, and to a growing extent on the American territory of Guam, are increasingly within the targeting envelope of the long-range precision strike weaponry of potential regional adversaries. Though this is a strategic military problem, tens of thousands of American military dependents stationed there will become a massive operational liability during conflict and greatly complicate the diplomatic calculus when rockets start flying. In that event, the Marines in Okinawa will get on ships and planes and go to fight, but commanders will face a difficult choice about how much of those transportation assets to devote to evacuating thousands of noncombatant American citizens that remain. In the moment of crisis, no commander wants to choose between supporting force generation for combat operations and saving noncombatants from long-range weapons raining down on military infrastructure. Drawing down the bases and sending dependents home prevents future commanders from having to make that horrible choice.

A drawdown also partially addresses the uncomfortable fact that American troops in Okinawa have largely worn out their welcome. A quick scan of Google search results for “Okinawa” reveals at least one report of “Americans acting badly” from within the last week’s news. The friction points with the local constabulary typically involve alcohol use among the 18 to 25-year-old male demographic – the primary population of American servicemembers assigned to the island – and can run the gamut from garden-variety bar fights to driving under the influence to sexual assault and murder. You’ll also notice stories describing the controversy surrounding the basing realignment program in the region. The twenty-year-old plan to move the Marine Corps’ Futenma airfield from the densely urban area of Ginowan City to a more remote location in the northern portion of the island requires the construction of tarmac out into the ocean in two directions. Environmental activists, concerned about the destruction of marine life, are now allied with the entrenched anti-base portion of the Okinawan population. They protest the construction site routinely, blocking progress and prolonging the dispute ongoing since 1996 with no end in sight.

The time is now to move beyond the failed constructs of the past to something that accounts for the shortcomings in security, public relations, and naval integration inherent in the existing disposition of U.S. forces in Asia.

Together, these dynamics present a no-win information environment for the Marine Corps in Okinawa. Moving Futenma doesn’t suddenly fix the Marines’ public relations issues, and every day the bases stay there, the problem gets worse. The Okinawan people, as kind and tolerant as they are, have already lived with literally decades of abuses at the hands (and fists) of America’s uniformed “ambassadors.” If the shoe were on the other foot, Americans would never tolerate the same sort of neo-colonialism in their back yards. Moreover, the offense has the advantage in war and will maintain it for the foreseeable future. There will not be a technological solution, no deployment of a super-THAAD air defense capability to Okinawa just in the nick of time to vouchsafe the well-being of non-combatants there. The proliferation of missile technology in the region means aggressors will find it easier and cheaper to field ever-increasing numbers of more accurate weaponry. Keeping the Marines in Okinawa hurts the American image, evacuating U.S. civilians while Okinawans fend for themselves makes that image even worse.

Marine Corps equities are not the only ones involved with this basing problem. Okinawa hosts facilities run by all the services – it is a “joint” island. However, the Marine Corps maintains the lion’s share of them and must be the first mover. Recognizing this, General Berger’s planning guidance did not allow basing to escape unscathed, but his criticism did not go nearly far enough. Regarding bases, he states: “Our installation infrastructure is untenable. We are encumbered by 19,000 buildings, some of which are beyond the scope of repair and should instead be considered for demolition.” Though referring to a global problem, General Berger should start by looking at buildings on bases in Okinawa. Instead of constructing new schools for dependents and headquarters facilities, the Marine Corps should go in the other direction with the aim of returning bases in Okinawa to their Japanese hosts at the soonest time practicable.

Basing: A Grizzled Steer

It is time to rip off the band-aid and get the Marines out of the metaphorical fighting hole in Okinawa from which they cannot possibly win today’s fights, let alone those of the future. Doing so creatively can nest directly underneath the naval integration priority contained in the Commandant’s planning guidance. Co-locating the Marine three-star headquarters for Japan –currently in Okinawa – with its Navy counterpart in Yokosuka will go a long way towards greater naval integration at the numbered fleet-Marine expeditionary force level whether in garrison or deployed. This works at the tactical level as well. The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, one of the Marine Corps’seven standing rapid response task forces, is also currently located in Okinawa while the amphibious ships it deploys on are based far to the north in Sasebo. By aggregating both tactical commands in Sasebo, co-located staffs can develop habitual working relationships even before they get underway as an amphibious ready group. Doing so not only reassures allies and deters potential adversaries, it demonstrates a firm commitment to the integration of Marine Corps warfighting capability with the U.S. Navy in the first island chain. increases readiness at a lower cost and better postures both integrated naval organizations for rapid deployment and employment throughout the region.

The time is now to move beyond the failed constructs of the past to something that accounts for the shortcomings in security, public relations, and naval integration inherent in the existing disposition of U.S. forces in Asia. Though post-war basing in Asia served American foreign policy broadly, keeping that grizzled steer alive sometimes came at the expense of operational readiness. As changes in technology and politics conspire against the 20th-century calculus of American bases however, strategic military risk is beginning to outweigh the diplomatic benefits of the U.S. force posture there. It remains to be seen if, Commandant Berger will take the opportunity of his upcoming trip to the region to take that sacred cow by the horns and lead her to the 21st-century slaughter.


Gary SampsonGary J. Sampson is a U.S. Marine Corps officer currently assigned to the Joint Staff. A 2009 Olmsted Foundation Scholar, he has spent 4.5 years in assignments on Okinawa. He is also a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University and a 2019-20 Public Intellectuals Program Fellow with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.

Modi Moves to Remake Kashmir

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

Highlights

  • The BJP-led government’s attempt to integrate Kashmir fits into its broader goal of solidifying the political and economic unity of India, whose regions are diverse.
  • While the Indian opposition’s strategy will focus on attacking the move as undemocratic, the government will aim to rally nationalist support in the name of national security, continuing a core theme of its reelection campaign.
  • The government’s deployment of 38,000 security forces is designed to preempt the expected rise in political violence and potential for a high-profile cross-border attack at a time when U.S. mediation may be unreliable and Pakistan may look to China for support.
  • At the same time, the heightened security threat to India could result in opportunistic jihadist attacks in core urban areas.

Continue reading Modi Moves to Remake Kashmir

Islands of Conflict: Where Trade and Security Collide

On Tuesday, July 23rd, a combined Sino-Russian air operation nearly sparked a four-way air battle over the Sea of Japan by coming provocatively close to the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands. Sometime in the middle of the day, the Republic of Korea scrambled fighters to intercept a large flight of Russian and Chinese bombers plus fighter escorts and a control aircraft that approached the sensitive airspace. The Korean jets fired warning shots, causing the intruders to change course. A few minutes later however, the package returned and was again intercepted by the Koreans. This time, Japanese fighters also responded, leading to a very dangerous situation and a formal protest from Tokyo. 

Though the scramble of fighters is not uncommon in these waters — Japan did so 390 times in 2017 — the discharge of weapons is a very serious incident, especially over disputed airspace. What remains uncertain however is whether the intrusion was an accident or a deliberate act intended to cause discord between two US allies. Russia initially denied culpability, accusing the Koreans of “hooliganism in the air” and questioning the legitimacy of the Korean air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Later that day however, Moscow blamed it on a technical glitch and promised to launch an investigation. Statements from the Chinese defense ministry on the other hand, contradicted the Russian stance; claiming the flight was executed as planned and insisting their aircraft did not violate Korean air space. Deliberate or not, the incident exposed widening cracks in US-led security arrangements in Northeast Asia and exacerbated a growing trade dispute between Japan and the Republic of Korea.

The Dokdo/Takeshima Islands

The tiny islands called Dokdo by the Republic of Korea and Takeshima by Japan have been an irritant in Japanese-Korean relations since the Second World War. Occupied by Korea but claimed by Japan, the rising economic and military power of Korea in the past 20 years increased the islands’ importance as a symbol of national sovereignty and pride. As a result, the frequency and intensity of squabbles over them also increased. Depending which source one consults, the islands were officially recognized as Korean in the 17th century but annexed by Japan during their colonization of the Korean kingdom beginning in 1905. Though not specifically mentioned in the San Francisco Treaty that ended American occupation of Japan, the islands were mostly forgotten until Korean forces occupied them in 1952 where they remain to this day. Despite recognizing the islands as Japanese, the US-led occupation government (still operating at that time) in Tokyo muted Japanese protests in order to maintain a unified front in Northeast Asia against the rise of Communism there. 

The islands became important again in 1994 when the UN convention on the law of the sea (UNCLOS) came into force. UNCLOS drastically increased the economic importance of even the smallest of maritime terrain features as states all over the globe used them to delimit the boundaries of their exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Since then, Dokdo/Takeshima has become more than just a point of pride, it is the key to some of the world’s best fishing grounds and any other economic riches that may lie within the 200 nautical mile EEZ surrounding it.

The Sino-Russian air operation on Tuesday also touched on how Beijing and Moscow believe boundaries should be drawn and security administered in Northeast Asia. The Korean ADIZ, for example, is not completely recognized by China or Russia, though they have different reasons to dispute the boundaries of that airspace management tool. For its part, China also has territorial disputes with both Japan and Korea in the East China Sea. By ensuring their air patrol also came close to the Socotra Rocks in the East China Sea (disputed with Korea), China and Russia managed to irritate the allies on a number of touch points simultaneously.

Routes followed by Chinese and Russian aircraft on 23 July
The Japanese Ministry of Defense released this map depicting the routes flown by Russian and Chinese aircraft on 23 July. Note their proximity to disputed islands.

Connections

The incident over Dokdo/Takeshima took place at a time when Japan and Korea are involved in an escalating trade dispute. Faced with an upper house election last week and falling tech exports due to the ongoing US-China trade war, Japan tightened its approval process on tech-related chemicals critical to Korean manufacture of memory chips. The Koreans, whose semiconductor industry makes 2/3 of the world’s memory chips for smart phones, accused the Japanese of retaliating for a Korean court decision demanding compensation to victims of forced labor during the Second World War. Japan rejected this claim but took steps to prevent World Trade Organization (WTO) sanctions by invoking national security, citing cases of inappropriate export of the chemicals in question to North Korea. Tokyo then doubled-down on their position by threatening to remove South Korea from a “white list” of countries with whom Japanese companies can trade with minimal oversight. Korea argues, with some justification, such a move would have devastating impact on the global supply chain that supports smart phone manufacture.

All these complex escalations took place in the two weeks leading up to the incident at Dokdo/Takeshima. Whether or not Japanese trade sanctions and the Korean responses to them are actually connected to ongoing disputes over wartime labor or a tiny set of islands, the dangerous incident in the skies over the Sea of Japan puts the convergence of all this disruptive maneuvering into a very disturbing context. If nothing else, it highlights the connections between politics, trade, and security in Northeast Asia. To the extent this was the intent of Russia and China, it will be interesting to see whether the United States plays a constructive role in cooling the temperature amid its own contentious trade disputes in the region. 


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC

The Contradictory Nature of U.S.-Japan Relations

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Memorial Day weekend visit to Japan serves as a reminder of the complex relationship between the United States and Japan. In addition to ceremonial events, meeting the new emperor and visiting U.S. military personnel, President Trump held discussions with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about trade frictions (driven by the United States’ nearly $68 billion trade deficit with Japan) and regional security concerns ranging from North Korea to China to Iran. This contrast between bilateral trade competition and mutual security cooperation in many ways exemplifies the modern U.S.-Japan relationship.

Mutual and Conflicting Interests

U.S.-Japanese security and economic interests have been intertwined and often at odds with one another. This has played out through recent history, from the time Commodore Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships” sailed into Edo Bay in 1853, through the post-World War I distribution of territories and the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, to U.S. restrictions on Japanese access to key industrial resources in the late 1930s and beyond. This duality was further ensconced after World War II and has defined modern U.S.-Japanese relations. In what later became known as the Yoshida Doctrine, for then-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, Japan largely relegated its national security and defense to the United States and instead focused its resources and efforts on reconstruction and building a modern economy.

Japan’s strategic location in the Pacific gave Tokyo quite a bit of leeway in its relationship with the United States. The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 solidified Japan as a key component of the U.S. defense architecture to contain the spread of communism in Asia, with Japan serving as an off-shore support base for U.S. operations in Korea and later in Indochina. The 1951 Security Treaty between the two, which would undergo several evolutions, provided basing rights for the United States and strengthened the importance of Japan in U.S. defense planning and posture. Japan’s location also served U.S. efforts to bottle up the Soviet Pacific Fleet during the Cold War.

Though Washington convinced Japan to stand up its Self-Defense Forces, Tokyo often held firmly to the Yoshida Doctrine, limiting its own indigenous military capacity while building up its economic might. Japan provided financial support for U.S. basing (effectively outsourcing its own national defense) and moved rapidly from an import substitution economy to that of an industrial powerhouse. The phrase “Made in Japan” underwent a radical transformation, from being a sign of cheap goods to an indicator of leading high-end technology and quality manufacturing. Initially, Japan’s economic focus over security responsibilities drew quiet criticism from the U.S. over Tokyo not pulling its weight in the alliance, but until the early 1990s, this was mostly rhetoric rather than any serious bone of contention.

Rising Trade Discord

The first major crisis in trade between the United States and Japan began in 1973 with the Arab oil embargo, triggered by the Yom Kippur War. The resulting oil shock opened the way for a brief but significant surge in Japanese auto sales in the United States. Japanese car sales picked up again in the late 1970s, at a time when U.S. automakers were facing rising economic problems of their own, and the competition led to outbreaks of rhetorical (and at times literal) “Japan bashing,” leading Tokyo to apply voluntary export restrictions by 1981 to try and ease trade tensions. The automotive industry was an early focus of competition, but throughout the 1980s it was the emerging high technology arena that became a key focal point. The rising trade dispute was further heightened by expanding Japanese investments in the United States, raising cries of America being sold to Japan.

By the late 1980s, U.S. and Japanese trade frictions had come to a head. Inside Japan, a nascent sense of nationalism had emerged during the previous decade, and in 1989 then-Minister of Transport (and later Tokyo Governor) Shintaro Ishihara penned a book with Sony Chairman Akio Morita titled “The Japan That Can Say No.” The book echoed the sentiment that Japan had left its national interests in U.S. hands for too long, and it was time for the country to stand up, assert its own position and say “no” to U.S. demands. Amid the small but significant camp calling for a stronger and more independent Japan, and given rising anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, Washington used a combination of unilateral and multilateral dialogues and diplomatic tools to chip away at what it portrayed as Japan’s unfair trade practices.

The mismatch between U.S. security and economic interests that was obvious during Trump’s visit to Japan is not an anomaly but a baseline element of the relationship between the two Pacific partners.

The result was the floating of the Japanese yen, changes in investment and industrial policies, and as a secondary consequence the decline of Japan from a rapidly growing economic power to a country that slipped into 25 years of relative economic malaise. Significantly, Washington targeted the Japanese economy even in the midst of the Cold War, at a time when the United States was deeply at odds with the Soviet Union, and thus where the Japanese alliance was a critical security component. The apparent mismatch between U.S. security and economic interests that was obvious during Trump’s recent visit to Japan, then, is not an anomaly but is rather a baseline element of the relationship between the two Pacific partners.

Continuing a Pattern of Past Relations

In this context, what appears on the surface to be counterintuitive — engaging in strategic competition with China while simultaneously attacking trade relations with key ally Japan — matches a pattern of past relations. The structure of the U.S. government and society frequently leads to seemingly contradictory policies on economic and national security interests, in contrast to countries like China or even Japan in the 1960s through the 1980s. For Tokyo, this is not a new situation, nor is it one that the Japanese perceive as fundamentally straining their security relationship with the United States. In many ways, that aspect of the alliance is growing even more significant as Japan moves further away from its strict interpretation of both the Yoshida Doctrine and the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Tokyo no longer sees its national security as something to leave in U.S. hands, but neither does it see an advantage in breaking from the U.S. security orbit.

Over the past several decades, Japan has slowly but steadily moved its defense capabilities from being a supplement to U.S. forces to be a complement to them. And, in some ways, it has even begun to take on some regional security responsibilities itself. This was driven by a combination of factors: The evolving North Korean security situation beginning in the late 1990s; the rise of China, particularly over the past decade; and by the more recent encouragement of the United States for its regional allies to take on more local responsibility. Washington wants to reframe burden sharing from primarily financial and basing support to concrete action, encouraging its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific to take on more responsibility. And Japan is now ready to reemerge from its quarter-century malaise.

Japan’s strategic location, advanced technological know-how, and parallel interest in countering a rapidly rising China reinforce its ongoing and expanding security cooperation with the United States. At the same time, Tokyo’s advanced economy and primary position as a maritime trading nation continue to stir competition in its relations with the United States. It is this duality that defines U.S.-Japan relations, and it is something that is unlikely to fade away any time soon.


Rodger-Baker (1)Rodger Baker is the Senior VP of Strategic Analysis at Stratfor. He leads Stratfor’s strategic thinking on global issues and future trends.

El Salvador’s Combative New President Faces A Perilous Balancing Act

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

With a style and pedigree different from that of his modern predecessors, El Salvador’s new president came out swinging against the status quo almost as soon as his inauguration ended on June 1. Nayib Bukele’s supporters see his willingness to break with politics as usual as a sign that El Salvador may finally shake off the lingering vestiges of its 1980-1992 civil war. Until now, every Salvadoran president has been associated with one of the main protagonists in that brutal conflict, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) or the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). Part of Bukele’s appeal is that he represents a break with the past, but change will come at a price in one of the world’s most violent countries. Unbalancing power dynamics too quickly in El Salvador could provoke a violent and destabilizing response.

A Hard Place

El Salvador is a tough place to govern. It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and most of its people are poor. The country’s gross domestic product per capita is a paltry $3,900, and fully 29 percent of Salvadorans survive on half that amount. The economy is rooted in resource extraction, which is vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation. It is also heavily dependent on remittances from overseas, which account for 21.3 percent of GDP. Years of expensive infrastructure development and high levels of corruption have left El Salvador with a debt-to-GDP ratio that averages around $2,550 per person — a high number that will have serious consequences if it remains unchecked.

Though the economics of governance in El Salvador seem daunting, violence is perhaps a more urgent problem. El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world: 50.3 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2018. The country is home to some of the world’s most notorious gangs. When organizations like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 fight over territory, the resultant violence interrupts development and corrupts politics at every level. Inadequate funding and limited resources hamper the ability of El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC) to respond effectively to the threat. Though the PNC has respectable investigating arms, it lacks the confidence of the population. The justice system is in even worse shape. Judges and prosecutors who manage to avoid corruption are often intimidated. The prison system is underfunded and overcrowded, with some facilities operating at 320 percent capacity. Inmates in overcrowded prisons eventually establish their own order, turning what is meant to be a physical manifestation of state power into a secure communications and operations base for the gangs.

Breaking Rocks

Bukele will find it difficult to achieve prosperity for El Salvador while breaking with political tradition. Though he won the presidency with a resounding majority, FMLN and ARENA still dominate the Legislative Assembly, holding a combined 60 of the 84 seats. Bukele will need to act in a cooperative manner, yet so far he shows little inclination to do so. Little more than a week into his presidency, he accused the FMLN of funding gangs to destabilize his government. He followed that explosive statement with another, threatening to “attack the criminality” of the FMLN’s senior officials. Though observers of Salvadoran politics say this is not a new phenomenon, acknowledging it in such a public way is not something a Salvadoran president has done before.

The Legislative Assembly is not the only institution uncomfortable with Bukele’s new approach. Leading families and their associates, so accustomed to wielding influence in El Salvador, have found themselves on the receiving end of termination notices delivered via Twitter. The social media-savvy Bukele used Twitter to announce the firing of 30 relatives and associates of former President Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the FMLN. They are already pushing back, calling the firings an abuse of power and preparing lawsuits that could cause leadership crises in the agencies involved.

More dramatically perhaps, Bukele’s first order of business as president was to order the army — again via Twitter — to remove the name of Col. Domingo Monterrosa from its 3rd Infantry Brigade barracks in San Miguel. Monterrosa was the commander of the forces responsible for the infamous El Mozote massacre during El Salvador’s civil war. That incident claimed the lives of nearly 1,000 villagers accused by the army of sympathizing with FMLN guerillas. The massacre played a central role in the negotiations that ended El Salvador’s civil war because the army insisted on amnesty as a condition for peace. Since then, the army has honored Monterrosa as a hero. Though the army acquiesced to Bukele’s demand, it is unclear what the president’s relationship with the military will be going forward.

Striking the Balance

Without a legislative majority or support from the oligarchy or the army, Bukele will need all the friends he can get if he is to maintain stability in El Salvador. His critics in ARENA and particularly in the FMLN, a party he once belonged to, know how to attack him. They’ve highlighted some of his expensive failures as mayor of San Salvador and pointed out that despite his attacks on cronyism and corruption, Bukele appointed dozens of relatives and associates to take the place of those he’s fired. Though he commands the support of a growing majority of Salvadoran voters, he could quickly lose their adoration if FMLN pays the gangs to destabilize the country as he claims.

Bukele will need all the friends he can get if he is to maintain stability in El Salvador.

Bukele’s combative approach to entrenched interests in El Salvador may win him the support of the voters but it leaves him with few allies in his quest to change his country’s reputation for violence and backwardness. Though he’s burning bridges at home, the right foreign backers may allow him to attract enough investment and maintain enough security to address his serious fiscal and political concerns, but this is far from assured. Recognizing this, he is rearranging some of El Salvador’s traditional alignments in ways that will appeal to U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration. For example, Bukele declined to invite the leaders of Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras and Venezuela to his inauguration, telling President Nicolas Maduro to “say goodbye” to Venezuela’s alliance with El Salvador. Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s focus on Central American migrants makes the United States a challenging partner.

However, the United States is not the only superpower with interests in the region. China also wields significant economic influence over El Salvador’s foreign policy. After some early suggestions he may reestablish relations with Taiwan, Bukele reaffirmed his country’s “complete” and “established” relations with China on June 27 and said his government would look “wherever we have to look” to develop El Salvador. While it is unclear what caused him to seemingly change his stance, the best Bukele can hope for in these circumstances is to provoke a developmental bidding war between China and the United States — a balance few leaders have been able to manage.

Ultimately, Bukele has a choice to make. The climate in San Salvador is not conducive to establishing populist dominance over his rivals and unless he finds a way to cooperate with his country’s other power brokers, El Salvador is on course for gridlock and pain. If Bukele fails, he may find it difficult to contain a violent reaction against him and his supporters, a consequence that could cause a deterioration in security in the wider region. The extent to which he can manage the balancing act between the will of the people, the vested interests of his still powerful rivals and the desires of global stakeholders to move El Salvador forward may ultimately be the central feature of his presidency.


Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He is a regular contributor to Stratfor’s Worldview.

Battle for the Throne: Indonesia Votes

As the ballots trickle in from the most complicated single-day election in history, Indonesia catches its breath and prepares for a tumultuous start to the second term of President Joko Widodo, known popularly as Jokowi. Though the election was held on April 17th, the Indonesian Election Committee (KPU) is still counting ballots from remote areas of the archipelago and will not announce the official result until May 22nd. In the meantime, the Indonesian Association for Public Opinion, a group of eight reputable pollsters, conducted a “quick count” that predicts Jokowi and his running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, will be victorious over ex-General Prabowo Subianto with a margin of 55.71% to 44.29% respectively. Though Jokowi encouraged the population to remain calm and await the official results, Prabowo dismissed the quick count and claimed victory. He eventually accepted defeat but blamed election fraud for his loss in an indication the battle may be just beginning.

Indonesia holds elections every five years, but this one was especially large and complicated. The KPU claimed the largest voter turnout in Indonesian history with 192,828,520 voters, approximately 80% of the electorate. Female voters were a majority, and 40% overall were millennials. This was also the first election in Indonesian history to combine the presidential election with the election for the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR). The MPR consists of two houses, the People’s Representative Council (DPR), and the Regional Representative Council (DPD) with a colossal 711 seats up for grabs between them (575 and 136 respectively). According to the KPU, the complexity and intensity of the electoral process and the long travel distances between polling sites contributed to the deaths of 456 of its members. Indonesians take their democracy very seriously indeed.

Party vs. Interest

In a reversal from the 2014 election, Jokowi’s 2019 success is due largely to the Islamic “Green Factor”, i.e. the support of the National Awakening Party (PKB), the United Development Party (PPP), Golkar, and his own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). Jokowi’s controversial nomination of influential Islamic politician Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate attracted the support of Islamist parties, but the move came with great risks. Ma’ruf’s age (he’s 76) and history of political flip-flopping are concerns. In addition, while Ma’ruf was a renowned part of the 212 Movement to bring down then-candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in his bid for Jakarta Governor, the movement was cited for intolerance. The risks of nominating Ma’ruf were borne out by the negative response of pollsters after his selection, even in Ma’ruf’s own province of West Java.

Green Factor in Indonesia's Election
The Green Factor: In the 2019 election, Islamic parties came out in support of Jokowi. Many also supported the religiously charged “212 Movement” to oust popular Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Photo Credit: https://jakartaglobe.id/context/peaceful-election-suggests-exaggerated-fears-of-a-country-split-in-two

Ma’ruf’s issues aside, there is real concern about the appeal of Islamic parties in Indonesian politics. Though Islamic parties play an influential role in Indonesian politics, none has ever won the presidency, perhaps because their political interests tend to be more pronounced than their political ideology. There is a perception they sway with the political winds and as a result, they have difficulties developing a firm political base. In most cases, prominent Islamic leaders lead the Islamic parties. Changes in leadership cause friction and leave internal divisions that can result in abandonment of their main political goals. PPP for example, fully supported Prabowo’s coalition on an ideological basis in 2014. In January 2019, after a long internal battle, the party pledged its support to Jokowi instead. This decision had less to do with PPP’s philosophy and more to do with its evaluation of Jokowi’s likelihood of winning the election.

Jokowi’s Future Challenges

During the campaign Jokowi ran on his record as President, claiming to have lowered the percentage of Indonesians living in poverty to 9.84% – and the unemployment rate to 5.3%. Though these are complex issues, it is obvious Indonesia became economically stable during that time. The country enjoys a 5% economic growth rate and became a G-20 member state. Despite the excellent results, Jokowi knows his task is not complete and will face three primary challenges in his second term.

In the previous five years, Indonesia’s economy grew at a respectable rate between 4.88% and 5.00% but fell short of Jokowi’s stated 7% goal. Furthermore, Chinese investment and Jokowi’s ambitious effort to physically connect Indonesia’s 17,000 islands fueled most of the growth the country did achieve. Not only is this type of investment unsustainable, it benefits a tiny percentage – less than 1% – of new middle-class Indonesians. The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in Indonesia is still large. Jokowi needs to continue to boost economic growth and invest more in young Indonesians, especially in the area of education. This will help Indonesia’s future development and prevent a reliance on Chinese or other foreign workers at the expense of young Indonesians.

Despite a strong commitment to building infrastructure, Jokowi needs to invest more in security. This includes not only fighting terrorism, but quelling unrest after official announcement of the election results. The potential for violence is serious. In 2018, Indonesia arrested 396 people linked to ISIS, Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) on terrorism charges and Prabowo received massive support from many fundamentalist groups. They have proven capable of mobilizing popular unrest in the past, bringing down Ahok, the popular Jakarta mayor, over allegations of anti-Islamic sentiment. Jokowi must preserve the harmony and image of Indonesia’s secular Muslims amidst threats of intolerance and attacks in the name of religion. Though there are no longer strong terrorist organizations in Indonesia, the country remains a place for massive recruitment by various radical organizations and their capacity for violent persists.

Apart from the Islamic “Green Factor” votes, Jokowi’s second term success will depend heavily on women and the poor. He must keep his campaign promises to issue welfare cards for education, basic needs, and vocational training programs. He needs to provide more opportunities for women, especially for the many mothers whose children disappeared during the Semanggi battle in 1998, a shameful event that is becoming a public cause. Finally, Jokowi needs to fulfill his promise of greater governmental transparency and a better system of checks and balances by bringing justice to those that have been wrongly imprisoned by corrupt officials.  

All these challenges and more will occupy Jokowi as he takes charge of a new and unfamiliar coalition next month. His ability to leverage the “Green Factor” in order to win the 2019 presidential election will not make it easy to appease his new supporter base and maintain his coalition. He must keep the promises he made while campaigning even when they run counter to the impulses of his new allies. The relationship between Jokowi and the Islamists adds a new dynamic to Indonesian politics, and in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, the Battle for the Throne is just the beginning of the war.


Viana GearyMefi Ruthviana Geary, PhD, has a scholarly interest in Countering Violent Extremism and deradicalization of terrorists. Her expertise is in Southeast Asian foreign policy analysis and open source intelligence (OSINT).

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