Skip to main content

After Indonesia's enthusiastic election last year of Joko Widodo, the country – desperately in need of new infrastructure for its booming population of more than 250 million people – began to weigh bids for its first high-speed railway. The new link would have connected the gridlocked capital of Jakarta with Bandung, the nation's third largest city, and cost about $5-billion (U.S.).

That's a big prize for any infrastructure builder, and precisely the type of high-profile, influential contract that foreign governments like to get behind. China and Japan were vying for this prominent project, and both were thought to have lobbied furiously – and were even rumoured to have suggested vaguely negative diplomatic consequences should they not win it.

But in the end, it didn't matter. Like almost every other high expectation of Indonesia recently – from attaining higher growth rates to building that promised infrastructure – this project came to nothing. With Mr. Widodo having the final say, the government late last week decided to cancel the project, choosing instead to pursue a slower train to Bandung that would cost significantly less, while reviving talks about a bullet train to the large city of Surabaya, which is more than 650 kilometres away.

It would be easy to see this development as a grim summation of Indonesia's path under Mr. Widodo: initial hope that Indonesia would act boldly followed by frustration for everyone involved. It is certainly easy to see how foreign investors would see this as yet more of the same: Indonesia assuring one thing, and promptly doing the opposite. The Japanese, who are already helping build Jakarta's much-needed rapid-transit rail system and are big investors in the country, publicly expressed their deep frustration. China can't be happy either, as it is desperately looking to export its high-speed rail technology – and has even suggested bringing it to Canada.

But did Indonesia really need a high-speed rail link from Jakarta to Bandung, of all places?

The distance is only about 150 kilometres. And there were going to be eight stops along the route, meaning the train would probably never reach its promised speed – and would be lurching constantly to a halt. Bullet trains have been enormously beneficial to Japan, particularly in the greater Tokyo area, and there have been no fatalities or passenger injuries since Shinkansen service started in 1964. But in less developed China, while high-speed rail travel is generally safe, there have been some incidents – such as the horrific Wenzhou train crash in 2011 that killed 40 people and injured 200.

Let's not forget, also, that Indonesia is a maritime nation of more than 13,000 islands – and home to a thriving budget airline industry that is already shuttling the country's new middle class (affordably) along the massive archipelago. Mr. Widodo had promised to invest in upgrading shoddy, congested ports – not rail. And high-speed rail can look like a vanity project for disconnected leaders – such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been mocked for his desire to bring high-speed rail to India – and would certainly have been bizarre for Indonesia, despite its infrastructure deficit. Still, it would have been easy for Mr. Widodo to go along with the project.

But in some ways, it's fitting the train was originally going to Bandung, a city best known for the conference it hosted in 1955, when African and Asian leaders gathered in opposition to colonialism and to cement the "non-aligned" movement that sought to negotiate a path between the rival Cold War superpowers.

Since then, largely without fail, Indonesia has pursued a non-aligned foreign policy that has even included the anodyne tagline "a thousand friends and zero enemies." An honest peace broker in the region and a reasoned voice on regional matters of Islam, Indonesia will occasionally gnash its teeth at Australia or at foreign ships fishing illegally, but the country's general reluctance to be strident – as well as the toothless nature of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – means the country rarely takes a strong, notable stand.

But now, oddly enough, Mr. Widodo, a former mayor who was not exactly predicted to be a great foreign-policy statesman, has made a tough choice. Sure, it's not exactly Churchillian, and even advisers expected Mr. Widodo to focus foreign policy on boosting the domestic economy, but it still took more courage to decline the project – and risk the ire of prominent regional actors such as China and Japan – than to approve it. Perhaps Indonesia's middle-path foreign policy is finally growing a backbone? Now, Mr. Widodo might want to consider leading Southeast Asia's largest country in bold positions on the region's other, more pressing problems – such as the Rohingya migrant crisis, for example?