From October 25 to 28, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of Indonesia – the world’s fourth largest nation, third-largest democracy, and largest Muslim-majority country – will visit the United States for the first time since his inauguration last year. What can we expect in U.S.-Indonesia relations during his trip?
Sources close to preparations for the visit told The Diplomat that the focus will be on strengthening the structural foundation of the existing U.S.-Indonesia comprehensive partnership; deepening defense and economic cooperation; and shaping the narrative of Indonesia in the United States.
Strengthening the Comprehensive Partnership
The first priority will be strengthening the U.S.-Indonesia comprehensive partnership, the framework that has governed the bilateral relationship since it was inked in 2010 under Jokowi’s predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. In the wake of the arrival of the Jokowi administration in Jakarta in 2014 as well as the changing regional and global environment, both sides believe there needs to be an ‘update’ of sorts to reflect these significant changes.
“We see the need to enhance and elevate the relationship,” a source involved in preparations for the visit told The Diplomat. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because planning for the visit was still being finalized, said the object would be to fashion “the next stage” of the comprehensive partnership.
The joint statement issued by both sides will reflect a range of bilateral, regional and global priorities as is usually the case. But sources told The Diplomat that two additional items would be at play. The first would be the inclusion of a new strategic dialogue between the two countries. The structure of that strategic dialogue, The Diplomat understands, would be a 2+2 format, with the inclusion of a foreign minister and another minister. While the other minister in such 2+2s usually has the defense portfolio, if left unspecified this could also provide flexibility as it would allow for rotational portfolios depending on issues of significance.
The second would be the setting up of a “Track II” or non-government track in U.S.-Indonesia relations, something which Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi had mentioned in her address to the U.S.-Indonesia Society back in May which I covered for The Diplomat (See: “Indonesia Defends Its Foreign Policy Record Under Jokowi”). Here, the focus will be on broadening out the relationship of the two democracies to include greater input from the business community, civil society as well as the academic community.
Deepening Economic and Defense Cooperation
Aside from strengthening the foundation – or the ‘bones’ – of the comprehensive partnership, both sides will also try to flesh it out a little more by boosting cooperation in several areas. While Marsudi had highlighted five areas for greater U.S.-Indonesia cooperation – trade and investment, maritime issues, security and defense, education, and democracy and pluralism – significant developments are expected in the economic and defense domains.
On defense, sources said that two key deliverables would be a new joint statement on defense as well as a memorandum of understanding on maritime cooperation. While Washington and Jakarta have already been cooperating on defense issues – including under the security working group of the U.S.-Indonesia comprehensive partnership –both sides have been signaling the need to both elevate bilateral defense cooperation as well as include newer areas for more substantive cooperation.
A new joint statement on defense cooperation will have that objective in mind. The statement is expected to cover six areas – maritime cooperation, military professionalization, joint development, transnational challenges, disaster relief and peacekeeping operations.
The second deliverable is a separate MoU on maritime cooperation. This is a nod to the importance both countries are placing on the maritime domain – a reflection not only of the growing significance of this area within the Asian security landscape but also Jokowi’s own maritime vision which sees Indonesia as a ‘global maritime fulcrum’ between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, something we have covered extensively here at The Diplomat.
The MoU is expected to touch on several areas including maritime defense, maritime resource management and maritime infrastructure. A highlight will be a plan for greater coast guard cooperation with Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency (Badan Keamanan Laut, BAKAMLA), a newly created organization under Jokowi. As I have written elsewhere, BAKAMLA is central to resolving the coordination problem that has characterized Indonesia’s maritime efforts (See: “Indonesia’s Maritime Ambition: Can Jokowi Realize It?”).
On economics, the focus will be around boosting business cooperation as well as collaboration on innovation, information technology and the creative economy. In addition to the inking deals worth around $20 billion, Jokowi will visit Silicon Valley on his trip, meeting with key U.S. companies like Apple and Google. The focus here will not only be on existing firms operating there, but the potentially growing involvement of Indonesian companies there as well.
Shaping the Narrative of Indonesia in the United States
In addition to strengthening the foundation of the U.S.-Indonesia comprehensive partnership and deepening cooperation, Jokowi will also look to shape the narrative of Indonesia in the United States. Despite Indonesia’s geopolitical heft, knowledge of the country is still quite limited, even in Washington, D.C beyond a small circle of analysts and observers.
There are also still lingering concerns in some quarters about Jokowi’s foreign policy being overly inward-looking, self-interested, and – in some cases, pro-China (See: “Is Indonesia Turning Away From ASEAN Under Jokowi?”). Indeed, as I reported last week, Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop had suggested that Jokowi’s visit could provide an opportunity for Washington to raise some of the concerns about nationalistic and protectionist behavior directly with him (See: “Australia Urges US to Caution Indonesia During Jokowi Visit”).
The Indonesian government has been working hard to try to counter these perceptions. Indeed, as I noted before, around half of Marsudi’s USINDO’s speech was devoted to tackling this criticism. In that vein, Jokowi is expected to not only privately reassure his interlocutors that this is not the case, but will deliver a public address in Washington, D.C. that touches on this subject as well. The speech will not only rebut criticisms about Indonesia’s ‘narrow nationalism’, but will touch on Indonesia’s role in addressing challenges like radicalization, climate change and global economic governance.
The overall narrative that will be stressed during the visit, a source told The Diplomat, is one of continuity in Indonesia’s traditionally free and active (bebas-aktif) foreign policy rather than a turn inwards or a shift to other countries or regions of the world.