The politics of changing a capital city

Professor Shankari Sundararaman / No Comments Share:
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (5th L) holds a press conference related to Indonesia's planned new capital at the State Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug. 26, 2019. (Xinhua/Zulkarnain)

What is in a name? Mandalanusa or Nusantaria are both the possible names of the new Indonesian Capital.

Four years ago, when President Joko Widodo stated the proposal of moving the capital from Jakarta elsewhere, there was really no immediate response or opinion, suggesting that several did not take the plans for moving the capital from Jakarta to Kalimantan as a real option.

Today, however, there is a growing urgency by the current administration to address the issue of shifting the capital from Jakarta to Kalimantan on the island of Borneo.

While the new capital is yet to be named, its new location however, is likely to be between the cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda.

On the eve of Indonesia’s 74th Independence day, President Jokowi formally asked parliament for support for this plan and reiterated that by the 2024 elections the new capital would be functional.

Indonesia is not alone in this venture to move the national capital elsewhere in the country.

Within Southeast Asia both Myanmar and Malaysia shifted their capital from locations in Yangon and Kuala Lumpur to Naypiydaw and Putrajaya respectively.

The Philippines too has shown some inclinations in this regard to shift the capital from Manila elsewhere to address environmental issues and day to day challenges of a huge populace living in increasingly congested cities not planned for accommodating a large percentage of the population.

However, the shift for Indonesia will be critical for several reasons and the proposal has both detractors and supporters to see where the move will head.

While Borneo seems to offer the best options as per the current administration, there are still concerns among detractors as to how this will affect environmental issues in Borneo where the rainforests have been dwindling as a result of the encroachments by palm oil, timber and coal mining industries which are exploiting the region.

Support for the project however, recognises several factors that push for the idea.

First, is the steady submergence of Jakarta as a result of rising sea levels, parts of which are expected to be fully submerged by 2050.

Second, there has been uneven development among the Indonesian archipelago, wherein islands such as Java are well developed leaving outer reaches of the country starved of infrastructure.

The current proposal is seen as a way to even out these developmental concerns and allow for infrastructure development to move eastwards, addressing the core focus of Jokowi’s (Joko Widowi’s nickname) Global Maritime Fulcrum strategy. Issues relating to environmental concerns are being assuaged with promises of a green and smart city in the making.

The estimated costs of building a new capital in Borneo are huge. Costing approximately $33 billion, the government is looking to public private partnerships with about one fifth of the cost coming from the state itself. The investment is also seen as one that will have a long term benefit as the region lies above the “Arc of Fire”, making it less susceptible to natural disasters as compared with the other highly earthquake-prone regions of the country. While these issues address the environmental challenges that are crucial, there are significant geopolitical reasons too for shifting the capital to Borneo.

From a locational point of view, Borneo lies at the centre of the archipelago, placing the new capital at the heart of the vast archipelagic extent. However, that is not the only importance of the chosen capital. Almost from the time of Indonesia’s independence the political leadership sought to shift the capital to Borneo. The recent proposal to move the capital will achieve the vision of President Sukarno who was one of the first to envision the Indonesian capital in Borneo. Indonesia jointly has possession of the island of Borneo along with Malaysia and Brunei. Increasingly, these three countries are showing greater propensity towards cooperation on a range of issues that are becoming critical not just to these individual countries but the region itself. Areas where these three countries are cooperating include maritime security, counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing. The move to Borneo will place Indonesia at the core of this region helping to develop the potential for cooperation further.

Strategically, the shift to the new capital which lies between the cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda is also critical in terms of Indonesia’s position vis-a-vis the giant neighbour to the north, China. The shift to Borneo will place Indonesia’s capital on the Makassar Straits, in the heart of the contested South China Sea. The Malaysian side of Borneo lies on the South China Sea too, as does Brunei. Both Malaysia and Brunei are claimants to the maritime dispute with China, making the leverage of the three states on the Borneo island that much more critical. If the project goes as per plan, the new capital will be ready and functional from 2024 onwards, exactly 200 years since the 1824 Straits Settlement Agreement which left the island of Borneo divided between British and Dutch colonial interests and eventually divided among three Southeast Asian countries.

Professor Shankari Sundararaman is professor of Southeast Asian Studies, Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Kalinga International Foundation

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