Indonesia is a huge archipelago, the most populous predominantly Muslim country in the world, and the most consequential nation in Southeast Asia. Indonesia may have a relatively low public profile, but not as far as the Pentagon is concerned – and something important is happening when it comes to U.S. defense and security ties with Jakarta.
The history of relations between America and Indonesia has been anything but smooth. Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno – flamboyant, narcissistic, gifted, and ultimately irresponsible – led Indonesia through the 1950s and early 1960s on a fateful political trajectory. Indonesia emerged from Dutch colonial control (and Japanese military occupation) with democratic, Western-oriented, political institutions. But actual governance proved difficult and poverty deepened despite the natural wealth of the country. Sukarno soon seized upon the international Marxist/communist, “anti-imperialist,” “revolutionary” narrative. It was political “bread and circuses” without the bread. By the early-to-mid 1960s he was publicly calling for an Indonesian alignment with China and North Korea – “the New Emerging Forces.” Domestically he became increasingly reliant on the powerful Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The results were catastrophic. In 1965, a communist-aligned coup (with Sukarno’s tacit if not active support) produced a military countercoup and a national bloodbath.
When the killing stopped, the PKI had been wiped out and Sukarno was replaced by Suharto, an army general turned President. For the next three decades Indonesia’s “New Order” regime was a classic modernizing autocracy. The World Bank provided aid, U.S.-trained economists crafted a growing export-led economy, and the military guaranteed societal stability with tight controls. Relations with the United States, which had deteriorated almost to the breaking point under Sukarno, improved dramatically – particularly in the economic realm. Defense relations were nominally friendly but not close or cordial. The Indonesian military leadership inherited more than a little of Sukarno’s suspicion that Americans harbored imperialist designs to exploit if not dominate Indonesia. Broad public resentment of America’s perceived support for Israel over the Palestinians tended to buttress such skepticism.
History often surprises and at the end of the 1990s the long-entrenched Suharto regime crumbled and was succeeded, not by chaos or civil war or another autocrat as many expected, but by a functioning constitutional democracy. It was as close to a political miracle as this world allows. At the same time, U.S.-Indonesian security relations improved as Indonesia found itself dealing with a serious homegrown Islamist terrorist threat and turned for help to U.S. law enforcement and military counterterrorist organizations. In 2004 a massive tsunami struck eastern Indonesia. In response, the U.S. Navy’s mobilized an effective rescue and relief operation that transformed Indonesian perceptions of America for the better.
By the beginning of this century U.S.-Indonesia military-to-military relations had become genuinely warm; the residual suspicions and doubts had largely melted away. Counterterrorist cooperation was substantial and effective. Congressionally imposed sanctions on the Indonesian military that dated back to severe human rights abuses at the end of the Suharto regime were being whittled away. Crucial educational opportunities for Indonesian officers at U.S. military facilities were being restored. It remained an open question, however, whether security relations between the two countries and between their military establishments could move beyond targeted areas of cooperation (counterterrorism, education) to a true strategic partnership.
In recent months, an affirmative answer to that question seems to be taking shape. That is one way to read the results of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ visit last month to Jakarta. That visit took place against the backdrop of aggressive Chinese activities (naval deployments, seizure of atolls, island building and fortification) designed to provide China with effective control over as much of the South China Sea as possible.
China’s putative maritime boundary (the “nine-dash line”) encroaches on a 200-mile exclusive economic zone that extends out from Indonesia’s Natuna Islands into the South China Sea. That zone is Indonesia’s under the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China, however, has claimed the right to send its fishing fleets into those waters. Over the last two to three years there have been numerous clashes between Chinese fishing boats, backed by maritime police, with Indonesian patrol craft. Indonesia’s president has underlined the importance of the maritime domain for the economic and security future of his country. Very recently the Indonesian government formally declared that the waters off Natuna constitute the “North Natuna Sea” – not the South China Sea. Beijing angrily rejected Indonesia’s terminology and demanded it be withdrawn.
For the United States, China’s ambitions in the South China Sea constitute a direct challenge to the long-established American military presence in the region. As the world’s established superpower faces off against Asia’s rising and rival superpower, the stakes could hardly be higher. If the United States is to maintain its maritime position in the face of China’s fierce ambitions and rapidly growing capabilities, it will almost certainly require active support from Indonesia. If Indonesia is to successfully defend its own (and broader Southeast Asian regional) maritime interests, it will surely require substantial American support. It is a very different geopolitical landscape than either country has faced over the last six decades.
Mattis, speaking in Jakarta, said the United States may now have more defense engagements with Indonesia than with any other single country in the world. He gave special emphasis to maritime cooperation and support and noted that the vast Indonesian archipelago constitutes a geopolitical hinge point between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. U.S. defense assistance is focused on strengthening Indonesia’s fledgling Coast Guard (technically, the new Maritime Security Agency or Badan Keamanan Laut, BAKAMLA) by providing training and hardware (a 50-ton Coast Guard cutter). Simultaneously, it is improving Indonesian capabilities to monitor its ocean waters (“maritime domain awareness”). Finally, in a gesture that could not be missed either in Jakarta or Beijing, Mattis referred publicly to Indonesian interests in the “North Natuna Sea.”
During the Obama administration, U.S.-Indonesia relations were elevated first to a comprehensive partnership and then a strategic partnership. During the Trump administration, the need is not to retitle the relationship but to give it strategic content. At least in the maritime domain, that strategic partnership is starting to take shape. The future direction of U.S.-Indonesian relations is clear: deeper maritime (and aerospace and cyberspace) cooperation aimed at forging a system of strong sovereign nations that contribute to a free and open Indo-Asian-Pacific commons.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and Dr. Marvin C. Ott is Visiting Professor, Johns Hopkins University, and Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.