In late January, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Indonesia. His mission was to begin implementing the new U.S. National Defense Strategy, which calls for expanding and transforming Washington’s network of alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific into a “networked security architecture.” The primary goal of the U.S. strategy in Asia is to win the “great power competition” against China. Obviously the United States believes it now has an opportunity to persuade Indonesia to be a political and if possible military partner in this “competition.” But Indonesia is unlikely to trade its nonaligned status and foreign policy independence in such a devil’s bargain.
A recent opinion piece in The Diplomat by two Washington, D.C. think-tankers reviews U.S.-Indonesia relations and forecasts a “deepening of the U.S.-Indonesia strategic partnership.” Specifically, it suggests that Indonesia will help the United States maintain its regional military dominance versus China in return for U.S. support for the defense of Jakarta’s own (and broader Southeast Asian) maritime interests. But the United States — and the authors — is likely to be disappointed, not the least because of the Trump administration’s own unpredictability and vagueness about its Asia policy.
Indonesia does have sharp differences with China regarding the area of the South China Sea north and east of the Indonesian Natuna Islands, where their claims to maritime rights may overlap. This dispute has been accentuated by several recent incidents between Indonesian enforcement vessels and Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels. Indonesia is also wary of China’s expanding power and it may harbor suspicions regarding China’s potential support for the Chinese minority in its midst.
But that does not mean that fundamental U.S. and Indonesian national security interests are suddenly aligned or that any coincidence thereof will be long-lasting. More to the point, Indonesia is not about to sell its strategic soul and allow itself to be used by the United States for its hegemonic interests just to gain a temporary respite from China’s burgeoning pressure. Rather Jakarta will likely take a long-term fundamental view and adjust to the reality of China’s permanent presence in the region and its growing power.
As just one example of the limits of this bilateral relationship, despite considerable pressure from Washington, Indonesia has consistently refused to join the U.S.-created and led Proliferation Security Initiative — a “coalition of the willing” to interdict trade in weapons of mass destruction. Jakarta would be a key participant because of its critical location bordering sea lanes between North Korea and the Middle East. Indonesia refuses to join because interdicting or allowing other countries to interdict vessels or aircraft in and over its waters would undermine its sovereignty and may be inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Jakarta also is suspicious of U.S. domination of the effort.
Despite this reality, Mattis and the Trump administration are charging ahead trying to entice Indonesia into a de facto “contain China coalition.” While in Jakarta, Mattis tried to hit all the right notes. He pledged to help Indonesia become a maritime power and indirectly expressed support for Indonesia’s claim vis-a-vis that of China by referring to the disputed area by Indonesia’s name for it — the North Natuna Sea.
But Indonesia and the United States have very different world perspectives. First of all, Indonesia is “nonaligned.” Indeed, it was a co-founder of the nonaligned movement — a group of now some 120 countries that are not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc. Nonalignment still plays a fundamental role in Indonesia’s foreign policy.
The two differ sharply regarding U.S. policies and actions in the Middle East — especially the recent decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, part of the seemingly increased pro-Israel stance of the Trump administration. Closer to home, while the United States sees ASEAN as a useful bulwark against China, Indonesia’s current interest in leading ASEAN and in regionalism itself seems to have faded in favor of a focus on domestic concerns. Moreover, facilitating the U.S. strategy would undermine if not replace ASEAN “centrality” in the region’s security.
As the authors of the recent Diplomat piece also note, U.S.-Indonesian military ties have long been troubled. The piece rightly notes that, in the late 1990s, military relations were suspended due to alleged human rights abuses by the Indonesian military. However, thought the article notes that “In 1965, a communist aligned coup produced a military countercoup and a national bloodbath,” it does not provide much context. In an article about “deepening the U.S.-Indonesia strategic partnership,” it is a glaring oversight to not even mention the U.S. role in this horrible tragedy. Recently declassified diplomatic cables reveal that U.S. authorities encouraged Suharto’s purge and worse, they knew that most of the victims were innocent. Washington not only looked the other way, but supported the brutal dictatorship of Suharto for many years afterwards. The authors of the article may want to gloss over the very troubling history of U.S. complicity, but these facts are seared into the Indonesian collective memory and underlie the suspicion with which Indonesian elite view the United States.
Many Indonesians in high places remain suspicious of U.S. motives and worried about the potential destabilizing effect of the U.S.-China competition. They want Washington “to exercise restraint.” Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu has suggested that “if regional countries can manage the South China Sea on their own, there is no need to involve others.” This echoed earlier criticism of the U.S. military presence in the South China Sea by Luhut Panjaitan, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, who said, “We don’t want to see any power projection in this area.”
The United States will focus its initial military cooperation with Indonesia on the maritime sphere — specifically maritime domain awareness (MDA). MDA, as the United States defines it, is the “effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment.” Sharing intelligence in this sphere certainly has advantages. But there are drawbacks as well. Does Indonesia really want to share what it knows — and more importantly, what it does not know — regarding its MDA? Will the United States share knowledge of all its operations in, over, and under Indonesian waters – including passage of nuclear submarines and overflights of intelligence aircraft headed for the South China Sea? Not sharing such information may undermine confidence rather than build it.
This focus on the maritime sphere is particularly ironic because the United States often challenges what it says are Indonesia’s excessive maritime claims. In 2016 it conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) against Indonesia’s: limits on archipelagic sea lane passage through normal routes used for international navigation; prior notification requirement for foreign warships to enter the territorial sea and archipelagic waters; and restriction on stopping, dropping anchor, or cruising without legitimate reason in seas adjoining territorial sea. But now the United States wants Indonesia to lend “support” — political and perhaps otherwise — to U.S. FONOPs against China.
Despite the optimism embodied in the new U.S. initiative (and reinforced by the article in The Diplomat) the reality is that the U.S. relationship with Indonesia — and for that matter with much of Southeast Asia — is fragile and much shallower and more ephemeral than the U.S. government thinks.
Indonesia may enter into a temporary relationship of convenience with the United States to advance specific interests, such as military training and weapons acquisition. But it is unlikely to be a partner in the U.S. effort to contain China. The United States needs to recognize this and to adjust its expectations, policies, and approach accordingly.
Mark J. Valencia is Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.