A new Jakarta? Asia's shifting capital cities

People in New Zealand occasionally talk about shifting our capital. In Indonesia, they may actually do it. President Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) has just announced the planned relocation of Indonesia’s capital from Jakarta to another city outside the island of Java. The relocation could take 10 years and cost around US$33 billion.

History of capital relocations

In Asia, shifting capitals is historically more the norm than a deviation. Indonesian politicians have been considering a move for some time. Sukarno tried to move the capital to Kalimantan after independence in 1945, and in the 1980s, Suharto proposed Jonggol.

Former capitals are dotted across modern Asian countries. As dynasties rose to power, they would sometimes assert their dominance by setting up a new court. Economic or environmental changes, such as the rise of trading systems or climactic conditions, often meant moving between inland agrarian and coastal trading centres. Coastal Calcutta made sense as the commercial hub of the East India Company, but the move to New Delhi, begun in 1911 under the British Raj, was driven by a need to find a more central location.

For more than one thousand years, Kyoto was the capital of modern-day Japan. There are other older claimants as well, as the capital could move each time an emperor died. Tokyo became the seat of government in 1868.

In Thailand, the Siamese capital at Ayutthaya was captured in 1767, leading to a move to Thonburi. Another move followed, to Bangkok in 1782, with the start of the Chakri dynasty of the current royal family. Chiang Mai was a northern capital before being annexed by Siam.

In some cases, changes following decolonisation and major political change drove relocation. After the unification of Vietnam, southern Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) ceased to be the capital in favor of the northern Hanoi. The more central Huế also claims former capital status, as the capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty from 1802 to 1945.

Urban liveability

Today, there are clear incentives for shifting capitals, ranging from congestion to affordability.

Jakarta packs around 10 million people into an area the same size as Christchurch. The city’s existing infrastructure isn’t designed to cope with the density. With water authorities only able to meet the needs of some 40 percent of residents, most people pump it directly from groundwater. Combined with the weight of the city itself, the result is a process known as land subsidence that makes Jakarta the fastest-sinking city in the world.

A new Indonesian capital, potentially on the island of Borneo, might become the latest planned administrative city. Pakistan relocated its capital from Karachi to Islamabad in 1967. The move was partially political, following the imposition of martial law. It also offered the opportunity to plan for a modern city. Similar incentives were ostensibly behind the 2005 capital move in Myanmar from Yangon to Naypyidaw, although critics say the wider roads don’t make up for the lack of people and character. Malaysia transferred its federal administrative center from Kuala Lumpur to Putrajaya in 1999, although Kuala Lumpur remains the national capital. Officially, the decision was made under PM Mahathir Mohamad due to issues with congestion and flooding.

South Korea is in a similar transition, although how far the move will go is yet to be seen. Beginning in 2003, some government agencies moved from Seoul to Sejong City, around 120km to the south. The new location offers a slew of benefits, including more space and affordability for workers. Seoul is consistently ranked among the world's most expensive cities to live.

Jokowi’s proposal would see government functions move from Jakarta, while trade and investment would remain in Jakarta. Yet whereas Putrajaya and Sejong City are a train-ride away from Kuala Lumpur and Seoul, the plan for Indonesia’s capital move is more radical. The shift would involve moving to a different island altogether.

Climate change

Jakarta is one of a number of coastal capitals and cities that face major threat from climate change and rising sea levels. In some cases, relocation is inevitable, barring major innovation. Like Jakarta, Bangkok and Manila are sinking a few centimetres every year. Such coastal cities are highly vulnerable not only to sea level change but also climate change disasters.

Other capitals struggle with environment challenges. Beijing’s issues with air quality are driven in part by the number of motor vehicles and urban congestion, but also the city’s own topography and weather patterns. The city’s liveability challenges have prompted some discussion of whether the capital should move. In a bid to address the situation, authorities in 2017 announced the Xiongan New Area to act as a special economic zone and control urban sprawl.

Technology and innovation offer alternatives to moving capitals, and Asian cities are out of necessity starting to consider ways to adapt. New Delhi is one of India’s cities thought to soon run out of groundwater; part of a broader water crisis in the country. Higher temperatures, flooding, and droughts will compound to the issue. Yet the fact that India gets more water than it needs over the course of a year, but must be efficiently stored and transported, means that engineering solutions may alleviate the crisis.

Jokowi’s announcement, then, is the latest in a trend likely to continue in Asia. Between climate change and declining urban liveability, authorities are certain to face hard choices between fight and flight. 

 - Asia Media Centre