Could Vietnam dethrone Indonesia as the regional power of Southeast Asia in the near future?





James Wu

I will answer this from the perspective of a Singaporean, a fellow Southeast Asian.

The phrase “regional power of Southeast Asia” is rendered somewhat meaningless by geographical realities. Southeast Asia is not an organic region. It is very clearly disaggregated into 2 components: mainland SEA and maritime SEA

The old name for mainland Southeast Asia is Indochina (the French used this term to refer to their colonies but originally it referred to the entire mainland), which makes sense because the states here are located at the crossroads of Chinese and Indian political/economic/cultural influence.





The old name for maritime Southeast Asia is the Malay Archipelago, or Nusantara. It contains a number of key maritime trade routes and chokepoints which became increasingly salient from the begng of the Age of Sail.



Mainland and maritime Southeast Asia are divided by two seas: the Andaman Sea (which narrows into the strait of Malacca) and the South China Sea




What this means is that any Southeast Asian regional power, to attain hegemony over the ENTIRE region, must project their power over these substantial bodies of water. I cannot imagine either Indonesia or Vietnam doing this for the foreseeable future (China is a different matter but we will exclude it from this discussion since it is not, strictly speaking, part of Southeast Asia). Hence, hegemony can only be partial.


Moreover, Vietnam and Indonesia’s considerable geopolitical strengths are counterbalanced by significant geopolitical challenges which pose difficulties for each of them attaining regional preeminence.


In terms of demography, Indonesia has the largest population of the maritime SEA states; likewise Vietnam has the largest population on the mainland. Human resources are important: not just in terms of manpower for labor-intensive agricultural or manufacturing jobs but also in terms of generating intellectual capital and innovative ideas in a knowledge-based society and economy. You need people to build stuff, invent stuff, grow stuff, run stuff, etc. Indonesia’s population far outstrips that of all the other Southeast Asian states, dwarfing that of Vietnam by a factor of about 2.5. Hence it is fair to say that Indonesia has the greatest POTENTIAL of all the Southeast Asian states.








Culturally, Vietnam has an advantage (somewhat akin to that of China) because of its ethnic and religious uniformity. The ethnic Kinh, or the Viet people, comprise an overwhelming 85.7% of the population, and most are secular/atheist. A predominant cultural mindset/values, shared historical background and standardized/mutually intelligible linguistic framework is highly conducive to national unity and social cohesion.




Indonesia is slightly disadvantaged here. The majority Javanese only make up about 40% of the population, with the rest being segmented into a multiplicity of ethnic minorities. This presents difficulties for national integration, as Indonesian leaders like Sukarno found out in the early years of independence, when ethnic secessionist movements and rebellions erupted all across the archipelago and had to be put down by the TNI. Then again, an overwhelming 87% of Indonesians are Muslim, so Islam might constitute a centripetal unifying force in the construction of national identity. (although if I am not wrong, the Islam practiced in Indonesia tends to be more syncretic and pluralistic than the stricter “orthodox” Arabized version of Islam practiced in the Middle East).





Economically, Indonesia is in the lead by far. The IMF graph below does not adequately reflect this, but in absolute terms, Indonesia’s GDP is about 4 times that of Vietnam.

Indonesia’s economy started off as largely reliant on the primary sector i.e. resource extraction like agriculture, mining, oil production etc. The vast resource endowments and natural wealth of the massive archipelago undoubtedly grants it an advantage in this aspect. But from the 1960s onward under Suharto, the Father of Development, it really industrialized and its growth took off spectacularly. Today it is still in the midst of transitioning away from the secondary sector (manufacturing) toward the tertiary one (services). It no longer relies as much on resource extraction for wealth, which is good.





Vietnam’s lagging GDP is understandable because it was slightly late to the economic development game, having lost a few decades under the stifling command economy, and before that, being embroiled in 30 years of continuous war. It only embraced the free market around the 1990s, when the Doi Moi reforms were implemented. Vietnam is currently in a similar stage of development as Indonesia, transitioning from the secondary to tertiary sector, but still lagging behind somewhat. The primary sector (Agriculture + Others) remains a relatively larger part of GDP than Indonesia, meaning Vietnam is still industrializing.




Militarily, qualitative assessments of military strength are just as important as quantitative assessments. Both are pretty formidable, but in different ways. Having mentioned the relative importance of land power and sea power in mainland and maritime SEA earlier, it makes sense that Vietnam has a comparatively larger army and Indonesia has a comparatively larger navy. This is due to divergence of geostrategic focus.


The Vietnamese army is battle-hardened: for 3 consecutive decades from about 1945 to 1975, Vietnam had known no other experience but war. Its army had fought four Great Powers (Imperial Japan, France, the US, and China) to win and preserve its independence. In the course of the three Indochina Wars, it had access to and experience handling Soviet, American, and Chinese military hardware and equipment. I can say with moderate confidence that of all the Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam has THE most well-tested and robust military capabilities, ranging from small-scale guerrilla warfare to regular conventional operations, hence the well-deserved title “the Prussians of Asia”. In the mid-to-late 1970s the great fear was that the Vietnamese army, after taking Cambodia, would overrun Thailand and the rest of mainland Southeast Asia. Vietnam alone in Southeast Asia has tasted war, endured its lessons, and, to a significant degree, mastered its practice. As they say, experience is the best teacher. It is militarily well prepared to repulse and defend against threats from potential Great Power adversaries (China), or to project power offensively against its slightly weaker mainland Southeast Asian neighbors. In short, its well-honed military’s function is external.









In comparison, Indonesia’s military has fulfilled a function that is mostly internal. The TNI’s main expertise and mission has always been the quelling of regional unrest or rebellions mostly within the operational reach of its amphibious capability. The army has mostly been used to reimpose domestic order by force. As such I would imagine it specializes more in counterinsurgency and stabilization operations.

Finally, a geographical analysis of both Vietnam and Indonesia reveals that both face significant constraints.




In Vietnam’s case, it possesses a tremendous geographic advantage in the form of not one (Thailand only has one) but two territorial-population “cores”: the Red River Delta in the north and the Mekong River Delta in the south, both of which are highly productive in terms of their agricultural output, and commercially vital in terms of their access to seaborne and coastal trade. Both river deltas are lowland plains, meaning that they are highly conducive to military consolidation and political centralization as well. The Red River Delta is well shielded by mountains and jungles, rendering it defensible against invasion from the north.


What about Indonesia’s geography? The first thing that stands out is its size. Indonesia is very clearly and indisputably the largest member of ASEAN, meaning that it can likely support a population to match that size. Moreover Indonesia’s islands are endowed with an abundance of natural resources which can be transmuted into wealth: tin, oil, natural gas, copper, and spices. In the early years of development this fuelled a burgeoning primary-sector economy.


So, what this all means, in geopolitical terms, is that Vietnam and Indonesia, if they achieve pre-eminence, will do so in their SEPARATE spheres of influence. And these spheres of influence are unlikely to encompass the whole of the mainland or maritime realms respectively, but only a PART thereof.

In any case, I do not think either Indonesia or Vietnam are close to achieving such a sphere of influence in the foreseeable future. Neither are likely to become pseudo-hegemons in the respective mainland and maritime subregions, much less become the sole hegemon of Southeast Asia.




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