As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travels to Jakarta this week in the hope of deepening ties with Southeast Asia’s strategically most important nation, strategic analyst Yohanes Sulaiman argues he is likely to receive a cautious response to any suggestion Indonesia join efforts to constrain a rising China.
On Thursday, 29 October, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to visit Jakarta. With an itinerary including stops in India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, it is clear that the goal of the visit is to persuade Indonesia to align itself more closely to the United States-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) in confronting security threats from China.
The United States has been pulling out all stops to try to persuade Indonesia. Witness its willingness to overlook Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto’s history of human rights controversies in granting him a visa for a recent visit after more than 20 years in the cold.
From the Indonesian perspective, however, there are several problems with this goal.
First, Indonesia has steadfastly maintained a position of neutrality, fearing it might be dragged into conflicts that it does not want. An independent and active foreign policy, which eschews formal military alliance, is a fundamental part of Indonesia’s strategic culture. Thus, Indonesia flatly rejected a recent US request to host spy planes on the grounds it would be against Indonesia’s historic position of neutrality, which saw it become one of the founding members of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM). Any deviation from these principles was bound to cause domestic uproar, something President Joko Widodo can ill-afford as battles to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and resuscitate the economy.
Indonesia have rejected a recent US proposal to host spy planes such as the Boeing P-8 Poseidon. Image credit: Michael Fitzsimmons, Shutterstock.
While the Quad bills itself as a dialogue, it is slowly evolving into a mechanism for military cooperation against the perceived threat from China. Even as elements in Indonesian society and the military are willing to consider support for the Quad in the future, at this point the consensus is one of wait and see, the outcome depending significantly on whether China increases its aggressiveness in the South China Sea.
Secondly, Indonesia has growing economic and investment links with China that could be jeopardised by closer alignment with the United States. China’s trade boycotts against Australia in response to Canberra’s firm stance against suspected foreign interference and on investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic have been duly noted in Indonesia. While Indonesia maintains a huge trade deficit with China, Jakarta cannot afford to pick a fight with Beijing as it needs Chinese investment, especially in infrastructure and heavy industry, to jumpstart the economy.
Thirdly, and most importantly, there is a question mark over whether the US can be relied on to continue its favourable approach towards Indonesia. Indonesian military officers are generally apprehensive about the idea of a US president from the Democratic Party, believing that a Democratic administration would put more emphasis on human rights, and be more prepared to intervene in Indonesia’s domestic affairs, in contrast to a business-like Republican Party.
They do not forget that it was the Clinton Administration that pressured Indonesia to leave East Timor and imposed a military embargo that wrecked Indonesia’s armament program for years. It was the Republican Bush Administration that finally lifted the embargo. To be sure, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, is seen positively in Indonesia due to his brief childhood connection to the country and his efforts to forge a stronger bilateral relationship as part of his Asia “pivot”. But Indonesia’s military did not miss the fact that the Arab Spring happened on Obama’s watch, in which they saw the hidden hand of the US meddling in the domestic affairs of Arab states on the pretext of concern for human rights.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo speaks with US President Donald Trump at G20 talks, Hamburg, Germany - 2017. Image credit: @jokowi, Twitter.
In fact, Indonesia’s Defence White Paper specifically notes that the “Arab Spring, political and security upheaval in Egypt, [and] civil wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria” are examples of major powers waging proxy wars. Not surprisingly, several high-ranking military officers I spoke to stated they are hoping President Trump will beat Joe Biden in the 3 November presidential election because that would mean the US would continue to act favorably towards the Indonesian military. A Biden victory may jeopardise that, putting the spotlight back on the question of human rights, especially human rights in the provinces of Papua and West Papua, which remains a touchy issue for Indonesia.
All this will force Indonesia to maintain its hedging game, welcoming the United States’ current outreach, but remaining wary of any abrupt change in US policy that may be detrimental to Indonesia’s interest.
It seems very likely that Joe Biden, should he defeat Donald Trump, would want to continue Trump’s outreach to Indonesia, considering that there is very strong bipartisan support in the US on the need to take a hard line towards China. Indonesia, of course, will deal with whoever the American people choose to elect. But should Biden wish to court Indonesia’s support he would need to deal with some historic legacies that have left many here doubtful about the durability of US friendship.
Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman is a senior lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani.
Banner image: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Jakarta, Indonesia - August 4, 2018. Credit: US Embassy, Jakarta, Flickr.