Next steps in US–Indonesian relations

Author: Donald K. Emmerson, Stanford University

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) was in Washington DC recently for his first-ever presidential visit to the United States. What can the two countries do now to build on the momentum for cooperation gained on the trip?

Indonesia has a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ with China, but a merely ‘comprehensive partnership’ with the United States. Jokowi’s visit did yield a constructive joint statement and a memorandum of understanding on maritime security cooperation between Indonesia and the United States. The agreement included provisions for US assistance to raise Indonesia’s capacity to manage its maritime domain.

Considering China’s ambitions for the South China Sea and the dent in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone east of Natuna caused by China’s ‘nine-dash line’, the memorandum has strategic significance. In recognition, the ‘comprehensive’ relationship between the United States and Indonesia should be jointly acknowledged as being a ‘strategic’ partnership as well.

One can also hope that the main purpose of the trip — increasing US investment in Indonesia — can be met. Preferably this outcome would be accompanied by assurances and evidence that Jokowi’s administration is committed to economic reforms, including taking robust steps against corruption. In the context of such reforms, US officials should discuss with their Indonesian counterparts the nature and status of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. During his visit, Jokowi announced that ‘Indonesia intends to join the TPP’. Words matter, but intentions do not guarantee actions. To encourage Indonesian support for the pact, the US should assure Indonesia that China is welcome to join if and when it can accept the agreement’s rules.

Jokowi was forced to cancel business-focused meetings in Silicon Valley to deal with the haze issue back home. But the economic opportunities that technology cooperation with the US could open are distinctive and important for Indonesia. Indonesia should follow through on such business cooperation to help to counter the invidiously perceived specialisation of roles whereby Indonesia makes security with the United States but makes money with China.

The US should also assure Indonesia that recent ‘freedom of navigation operations’ by US warships in the South China Sea are not aimed at containing China but are meant to maintain the principles of international maritime law. Washington and Jakarta should explore the ways in which those operations could complement Jokowi’s plan to make Indonesia a ‘global maritime fulcrum’. In this context the US could invite all interested countries, including China, to join the US in cruising the South China Sea on behalf of navigational freedom. China will likely refuse, but others may not.

On 5 November the Malaysia’s defence minister joined his American counterpart on a visit to the aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt in the South China Sea. The Indonesian defence minister is unlikely to follow suit. But that should not prevent Jokowi’s and Obama’s staffs from brainstorming creative and constructive solutions to the dangerous imbroglio that Southeast Asia’s maritime heart has become.

One clear benefit of Jokowi’s visit is the evidence he was able to gain in Washington that the American ‘rebalance’ toward Southeast Asia has not been sidelined by the crises in the Middle East, or by the domestic focus on the US presidential campaign. The challenge is instead how to manage, within that larger frame, a ‘rebalance’ toward Indonesia. Indonesia under Jokowi has not developed a proactive diplomatic profile to match the country’s position as by far the largest Southeast Asian state. The US could and should encourage such a role.

Looking forward, one can hope that the two countries will soon establish an annual or bi-annual dialogue that will bring together officials and civil-society actors from both countries on a regular basis. Such interactions can serve to reduce bilateral misunderstandings, encourage candour and help to yield productive amity between Indonesia and the United States — the largest democracies, respectively, in Southeast Asia and the Americas.

The need for broad bilateral consultations has been underscored by unexpected turbulence in the aftermath of Jokowi’s visit. An Indonesian television journalist named Canny Watae claimed that Obama had disrespected Jokowi by not according him the honour of a full military salute similar to what China’s President Xi Jinping had received upon arriving in the US in September. Watae apparently did not understand the difference between Jokowi’s ‘official visit’ and Xi’s ‘state visit’, a nicety that was mostly ignored when the charge of disrespect went viral in Indonesian cyberspace.

More serious was the storm of online criticism in Indonesia that greeted an article by Indonesia expert Professor Michael Buehler, which questioned the propriety of a US$80,000 public-relations contract that sought to heighten the impact of Jokowi’s visit. Buehler used the contract to highlight rivalries within Jokowi’s ‘inner circle’ and to question the coherence of the Indonesian president’s ‘foreign policy agenda’. The online backlash prompted a number of scholars to pen a petition defending Buehler and academic freedom.

In their joint statement at the end of Jokowi’s visit, the two presidents welcomed the future broadening of official US–Indonesian relations to include the engagement of civil-society organisations and actors on both sides. Scheduling regular opportunities for such interaction is hardly a panacea. But it can help to reduce the chances of misunderstanding between two democratic states that need to be able to interact openly and frankly for mutual benefit. That should be a priority next step in ongoing joint efforts by both countries to deepen and broaden their relations.

Donald K. Emmerson is director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. This article represents the personal view of the author. Parts of this article are based off an earlier version that was published as a PacNet commentary.

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Ken Ward
12 November 2015 2:06 pm

It is hard to accept the author’s claim that Jokowi was ‘forced’ to cut short his visit to the US because of Indonesia’s haze problem. This is a perennial issue which has caused great annoyance to Malaysia and Singapore for many years. 2013 was a bad year for the haze, but it seems to have been worse this year. Jokowi appeared to concern himself with the haze early in his administration, but achieved nothing.

Haze didn’t suddenly emerge as a hindrance while Jokowi was in the US, but was in the headlines weeks and weeks earlier. His early departure suggests an amateurish lack of focus in his approach to governing Indonesia, perhaps especially in foreign policy, more than anything else.

Donald K. Emmerson
16 November 2015 6:23 am
Reply to  Ken Ward

Of course Jokowi was not physically coerced by someone into breaking his stay in the US. The word “forced” is apposite, however, in light of the severe and simultaneously ecological and political emergency that the president faced at the time he made the decision to cut short his US trip. Anger was rising not only in haze-damaged Singapore and Malaysia but in Indonesia as well. In the days just prior to Jokowi’s hurried departure from the US, the Pollutant Standards Index in Central Kalimantan hit an all-time lethal high of 3,300. (Readings between 201 and 300 are “very unhealthy”; readings above 301 are “hazardous.”) Journalists were reporting actual fatalities from ingesting polluted air. The potential damage to Jokowi’s image from photos of him hobnobbing with high-tech executives in Silicon Valley while Indonesians were coughing themselves to death was too high. A severe health emergency and related political pressure did indeed force the president to return to Indonesia.