WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence’s visit to Indonesia from April 20 to 22 is an important early opportunity for Donald Trump’s administration to kick off its engagement with a key emerging power and to signal its commitment to Southeast Asia more broadly. But it also marks the beginning of a longer-term challenge for the Trump team in adroitly managing a U.S.-Indonesia relationship that risks coming under strain. Doing so will require both easing anxieties in Jakarta about a new U.S. administration while getting across concerns central to the advancement of American interests.
The strategic logic of a stronger U.S.-Indonesia partnership is clear. Indonesia wants to cement ties with major players such as United States to support its rise as a regional power with global interests, while Washington needs to engage emerging powers like Jakarta – the world’s fourth largest nation, third largest democracy, and largest Muslim-majority country – to tackle challenges in an increasingly multipolar world ranging from terrorism to climate change. It is this logic that drove both countries to upgrade ties, first to to a comprehensive partnership in 2010 and then to a strategic partnership in 2014 under then-U.S. President Barack Obama, who had a unique personal connection to Indonesia having spent part of his childhood in Jakarta (See: “The New US-Indonesia Strategic Partnership: Problems and Prospects”).
But expectations also tend to rise with any elevated relationship, and the reality is that both sides have faced challenges in living up to their new strategic partnership. For Jakarta, there is understandably deep uncertainty about both the general foreign policy direction of the new U.S. administration as well as the implications for the bilateral relationship. For Washington, strategic convergence has been more difficult to operationalize in some cases with the domestic-oriented government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo than his relatively more internationalist predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. There are also concerns among some actors in the U.S. foreign policy process about trends within Indonesia, whether it be growing economic nationalism or rising intolerance. Though both sides cannot resolve these challenges during a single trip, they must begin shaping an approach to dealing with them in the coming years.
Assuaging Indonesian Anxieties
Pence’s primary task will be to begin to assuage Indonesian anxieties about the direction of the new administration, of which there are many. One set of concerns relates to U.S. foreign policy more generally. These run the gamut, whether it be basic dynamics of a rather unconventional administration, the sustainability and shape of U.S. commitment to Asia and Southeast Asia, the Trump team’s approach to the U.S.-China relationship, and its posture toward various global threats, from a nuclear North Korea in Northeast Asia to a rising Islamic State in the Middle East (See: “Trump’s Real ASEAN Test”).
Getting aligned on these issues is important because it is often the manifestations of these broader considerations – whether it be U.S. military interventions in the Middle East or the American posture in the South China Sea – that have complicated ties in the past. As the administration ventures deeper into the Middle East and begins firming up its approach to key challenges, the risk of this will only increase.
The other set of concerns Jakarta relate to the bilateral relationship more specifically. And here too, there will be much to discuss. On the security side, though the Trump travel ban did not cover Indonesia, it nonetheless risked diminishing support for the United States among Indonesians and potentially restricting policymakers’ ability to openly pursue greater counterterrorism cooperation with the United States, a familiar challenge that had emerged during the initial years of George W. Bush’s war on terrorism as well. “We can do it, but it’s [more] difficult if we cannot bring [along] our people also,” one Indonesian official told me in March, in reference to bilateral cooperation against the Islamic State, one of the key priorities under Trump’s America First vision.
On the economic side, meanwhile, Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Indonesia’s subsequent inclusion in the list of 16 countries being investigated by the administration for trade abuses has turned this dimension of the relationship into a headache for Jakarta. “[A]t this time of global economic uncertainty we are puzzled with the signal being sent from Washington…[i]t really concerns us,” Iman Pambagyo, director general for international trade negotiation at Indonesia’s Trade Ministry, said earlier this month. Privately, officials say there is in fact some flexibility as to how the administration will actually proceed, and there are indications that this could well be the case. But charting a clear path forward soon will be important priority for both sides.
Conveying U.S. Concerns
But Pence will also want to convey U.S. concerns about Indonesia and the state of the bilateral relationship as well. At home, though Jokowi himself enjoys high popularity ratings and has kickstarted much-needed domestic reforms in Indonesia, he has also presided over a rising tide of intolerance as well as growing economic nationalism in the country that has concerned actors ranging from rights groups to companies (some of whom are now also concerned about these developments in the United States too, with Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency).
To be fair, these troubling trends did not start with Jokowi, and in some cases the blame lies equally in inflated past expectations as much as ongoing realities (See: “Is Indonesia Really the World’s Most Tolerant Muslim Country?”). Nonetheless, Pence’s visit will coincide with one perceived litmus test for the former: the second round of the Jakarta gubernatorial election. Unfairly or not, whether the favorite – reform-minded, Christian, and ethnically Chinese incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok – can win despite of a perceived smear campaign by radical Islamists and amid an ongoing blasphemy trial has been billed a test for Islam and politics domestically as well as Indonesia’s reputation as a moderate Muslim country in Western countries like the United States (See: “The Trouble With Indonesia’s Ahok Test”).
Abroad, despite Washington’s desire for greater Indonesian regional leadership, much of the conversation in Southeast Asia since Jokowi’s election has been more about Indonesia’s absence rather than its presence (See: “Is Indonesia Turning Away from ASEAN Under Jokowi”). Though Indonesian officials are right that some of this is overstated – even offering lists of Jakarta’s regional contributions on specific challenges central to its interests and ideals from illegal fishing to the Rohingya issue – it is also true that the relative comparison to the Yudhoyono years is clear for all to see and felt by some of the country’s most seasoned diplomats, especially this year, which marks both the 50th anniversary of ASEAN’s founding and the 40th anniversary of U.S.-ASEAN relations.
In his opening keynote address at a U.S.-ASEAN conference in Manila organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in February, Indonesia’s former Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told the audience that a stronger Indonesian leadership role is critical for ASEAN to formulate a more transformative vision for its future. In private, it is not difficult to find Indonesian diplomats conveying the same message, often with less diplomatic language. ASEAN will be in the spotlight during Pence’s visit, with the ASEAN Secretariat located in Jakarta and the vice president expected to meet the ASEAN secretary general as well as ASEAN permanent representatives. Just as it is fair for Indonesian interlocutors to ask Pence about the U.S. commitment to ASEAN, including Trump’s attendance at regional summits later this year, it is also reasonable for U.S. officials to ask Jakarta about its own regional role (See: “Why Trump Should Go To ASEAN and EAS in Vietnam and the Philippines”).
U.S. concerns about Indonesia’s domestic and foreign policy outlook also bleed into the bilateral relationship too. Jakarta’s traditional preference for a free and active foreign policy has meant a tendency to pursue a diversified set of relationships and exercising its own independent leadership instead of just backing U.S.-led initiatives (See: “Indonesia’s South China Sea Policy: A Delicate Equilibrium”). But given the Trump administration’s narrower worldview and its more transactional approach to engagement, it is understandable that it would want Indonesia to do more on issues central to its agenda – whether it be on the Islamic State or maritime security – in order for Jakarta to be a key partner for the administration in the Asia-Pacific and for Washington to reciprocate on priorities Indonesia would like to see advanced, be it on energy or education. The visit is an opportunity for Pence to convey what these areas are and what the United States expects from Indonesia, and for both sides to begin to work out how substantive cooperation can be advanced in ways that are feasible for both sides.
On the economic side, though this dimension of the relationship has tended to lag other aspects, economic nationalism and protectionism have been growing concerns for some U.S. companies and for Washington. During his visit, Pence will hear some perspectives when he meets with U.S. and Indonesian business leaders and also deliver his own remarks to the business community. He will have an opportunity to discuss issues with Indonesian interlocutors, and both sides can hopefully begin laying the groundwork for some initial steps they can take to advance this aspect of their ties, whether it be resolving some trade issues or diversifying U.S. foreign direct investment. All the while, though it will not be listed or mentioned as an official subject of discussion, as with previous U.S.-Indonesia interactions, the still unresolved issues related to the future of U.S. mining giant Freeport-McMoRan – the largest single U.S. foreign direct investment into Indonesia – will nonetheless loom large in commentary about the relationship.
It has been a rather rocky road for U.S.-Indonesia relations under the Trump administration thus far. But Pence’s trip is an opportunity to begin to get ties back on track by easing Indonesian anxieties and conveying American concerns. Doing so would be a boost not only for Washington’s ties with a key Asian partner, but for its engagement in Southeast Asia more generally.