Indonesia: The Unattended Pacific Ally

Indonesia: The Unattended Pacific Ally

. 7 min read

For a country with the largest Muslim population in the world, the claim by Indonesia’s former Vice President Jusuf Kalla, responding to revelations of mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang in 2018, that his country did not “want to intervene in the domestic affairs” of China was understandably troubling. Faced, at the time, with a US administration which was chronically absent from Southeast Asia, the Indonesian leader behaved in a way which characterized his country’s strategic trend over the last decade: a gradual but noticeable de-alignment with the United States and injection into China’s orbit.

With the 2022 G20 Summit in Indonesia, and Jakarta poised to assume the presidency of ASEAN, now seems an appropriate time to examine the place of the Southeast Asian nation as a key player in the Asia Pacific. More broadly, Indonesia’s gentle abandonment of the United States is a critical case study in the US’ management of its strategic partners, which have been routinely overlooked in recent years. Lest its foreign policy be further undermined by Beijing—not just in the Asia Pacific but around the world—the United States should learn from its relationship with Indonesia.

Jokowi’s Indonesian Dream

Since being swept to power in 2014, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (former Governor of Jakarta known popularly as ‘Jokowi’) has remained popular through both his terms, with approval ratings as eye-wateringly high as 75.3 percent earlier this year. Implementing an agenda focused on significant infrastructure development and resource nationalism, Widodo worked to expand China’s pre-existing raft of projects in Indonesia as part of its controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), widely considered a move by Beijing to exert control over vast swathes of central Asia and the Pacific. One BRI component, an 83.6km long expressway linking Jakarta with one of Indonesia’s disparate provinces, broke ground in early August, whilst the Chinese-funded high-speed rail link between Jakarta and Bandung—in which China famously outmaneuvered Japan to build the railway at a great financial cost—is nearing completion.

Striking as well have been Widodo’s projects of resource nationalism, a continuation of a decades-long Indonesian political trend which has accelerated under his presidency. Despite lagging commodity prices, Widodo pushed to nationalize the Indonesian oil fields of multinational companies such as Chevron and Freeport, and instituted a ban on raw nickel exports. Although economists have questioned the economic rationale behind the moves, their political implications are clear: as the world’s largest producer of nickel by far, contributing 37 percent of the world’s supply, Indonesia now has tremendous and centralized power over the movement of its globally-significant exports. That kind of control vests Widodo with significant leverage when negotiating on behalf of Indonesia, as he did in July, becoming the first foreign leader to meet with Chinese President Xi Xinping since the Winter Olympics in February. Both committed to increasing bilateral trade, a move likely welcomed in Indonesia, which has suffered from the intense food insecurity created by the war in Ukraine, and in China, whose annual trade with Indonesia surged almost 30 percent in the first half of 2022. Those all-important nickel reserves, too, will likely continue to feed the high-tech manufacturing hubs of Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

Tension with Beijing

All of this suggests not just that Indonesia is becoming economically dependent on Chinese imports, but that the political class, too, is becoming dependent on the beneficence of Chinese lending. That cooperation has led to joint naval exercises involving Chinese and Indonesian vessels, and even joint cyber war simulations, to the alarm of Western observers. Yet, this cooperative zeal appears out of step with the attitudes of Indonesian people, who, according to a 10-year polling comparison by Australian think tank the Lowy Institute, are growing increasingly suspicious of Beijing’s intentions. 60 percent of Indonesians now think that ‘Indonesia should join with other countries to limit China’s influence’, a 10-point increase from 2011, whilst a minority, 43 percent, now think that ‘China’s growth has been good for Indonesia,’ down from 54 percent in 2011. In spite of this, the incentives for Indonesia’s politicians remain resolutely in favor of closer cooperation with China, and the low-commitment loans and popular infrastructural development that cooperation pumps into the developing country’s economy.

That political overlay is, in part, what prevents Widodo from responding robustly to Chinese salami tactics in its nominally denied territorial dispute with the Asian superpower. Chinese claims in the political hotbed of the South China Sea have led to tensions with US warships, with China militarizing artificial islands to extend its sphere of military influence. In the West, Chinese state-controlled companies such as Huawei have faced regulatory backlash by governments, as Western leaders attempt to stave off the encroachment of the Chinese state into the democratic world. Beijing has also, for some years, sought material influence in Asia through its Belt and Road Initiative, enshrining new avenues of access to resources which lie outside of the United States’ dominion and capacity to disrupt. All of this suggests a concerted attempt to acquire influence through a variety of means. The political cost of abandoned BRI projects, and the pigeonholing of Indonesia as simply another disruptive Pacific agent of the United States, dissuade the Indonesian government from meaningfully resisting Beijing’s territorial encroachments.

An Absent West

Against the backdrop of Chinese attempts at geopolitical hegemony, the West has been notably absent in the minds of Indonesia’s political leaders. While the Trump Administration was waging a crippling trade war against China, the United States’ presence in the Indo-Pacific turned into a dead hand, with the president neglecting to make a state visit to Indonesia and failing to attend all four East Asia summits. A former Indonesian ambassador even remarked that the relationship had “lost its soul.” After assuming the presidency, Biden engaged in some furious damage control, even sending the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Jakarta (unhelpfully, at exactly the same time as a top Putin government official was engaged in simultaneous security talks with Indonesia). Nonetheless, the failure of an Indonesian visit in Vice President Kamala Harris’ and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin’s Pacific diplomatic blitzes left some in Jakarta questioning the value placed by the United States on its partnership with a key regional power. Its declining aid from the West has also been paired with a surge in foreign debt accumulation, as Jakarta has sought to wean itself off aid from countries such as the United States, Japan, and Australia, and pivot towards a self-determined vision of national development (coloured, of course, by the strategic ambitions baked into the BRI).

This notable absence of the United States is not commensurate with the key role that Indonesia has played, and continues to play, for the Asia Pacific. Pursuant to its decades-old bebas aktif (‘free and active’) foreign policy, and as Southeast Asia’s largest economy, Indonesia is a culturally and economically significant player which has sought to further its national interests through diplomatic means without becoming bound to any one great power. Its importance has, it seems, always been understood by recent Australian leaders, such as Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Anthony Albanese, both of whom made a Jakartan pilgrimage quickly after being elected. For within Asia, Indonesia’s place as a preeminent regional partner is unambiguous, a fact that appears to have been lost on recent US administrations.

In seeking to build a more symbiotic relationship with China, Widodo has also departed acutely from the intentions of Western leaders. As the host of the 2022 G20 Summit, he has refused to bar Russian President Vladimir Putin from attending, despite the calls from Western diplomats to eject the Russian leader for his brutal invasion of Ukraine. Having traveled to Ukraine to meet President Zelensky, and then to Russia to meet President Putin earlier this year, offering Indonesia as an intermediary to end the conflict, Widodo certainly exemplified the bebas aktif so important in his country’s foreign policy, and has framed his admission of Putin to the G20 as an exercise in peace. Nonetheless, his resistance to Western pressure should come to North American and European leaders as no surprise, given the pressing domestic imperative to sure up supplies of grain so affected by Putin’s war.

Subianto’s climb

On the horizon for Indonesia looms its upcoming presidential election, which will see Widodo step down and transfer power, for only the fourth time in Indonesia’s recent history. With the world’s fourth-largest population and as the third-largest democracy since the beginning of the country’s Reform Era in 1998, Indonesia is also in the midst of a democratic experiment which is barely into its third decade. A contender and likely frontrunner is Prabowo Subianto, current Indonesian Minister of Defense and son-in-law of Suharto, Indonesia’s brutal dictator of 31 years. As an ex-general during the fall of the Suharto regime, Subianto is accused of a shopping list of human rights abuses, which rendered him a ban on entry to the United States for two decades, and sparked backlash upon his appointment to cabinet following Widodo’s election victory in 2019. After running against, and being defeated by, Widodo in that very election, Subianto challenged the election results, in a manner echoing populist leaders the world over. Concerningly for the West, Subianto appears less attached to Indonesia’s bitterly-obtained democratic institutions than his President, suggesting premonitions of authoritarianism which would critically endanger the nascent democracies of Southeast Asia: it is unlikely Indonesia will be a stalwart defender of the rule of law in its own region if it cannot do so within its own borders.

With an uncertain political future for Indonesia, experts have been, and are, urging the United States to re-engage with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the region’s peak association of nations, and an important power bloc. Indonesia is set to assume the ASEAN presidency later this year, and China has been keen to voice its support, raising questions as to whether Beijing might seek to influence the group. China already has a de facto veto on ASEAN resolutions, which must be passed unanimously, because of its intimate economic ties with several of the group’s members. The Indonesian presidency of ASEAN will, in all probability, involve a continual balancing act.

With Indonesia having recently hosted the G20 Summit in November, and having assumed control of ASEAN for the next 12 months, its neglected relationship with the United States and its allies is becoming more acutely visible. Ironically, its gradual movement into China’s fold has not just been predictable and avoidable, but will likely precipitate more of the territorial violations against which its national politicians—some of whom will test to the breaking point its fragile democracy—protest so vehemently. That movement has precipitated a wholesale disengagement with the United States, bringing into question its strategy in, and indeed commitment to, the Asia Pacific. Whether the United States’ position is redeemable has yet to be seen, but for Indonesia, the question will be whether bebas aktif can survive another decade.