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Op-Ed

The new U.S.-Indonesia strategic partnership after Jokowi’s visit: Problems and prospects

Prashanth Parameswaran

From October 25 to 27, Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo paid his first visit to the United States just over a year after being inaugurated. The highlight of the trip was a decision by Jokowi and U.S. president Barack Obama to formally elevate bilateral ties to the level of a strategic partnership. However, a closer look suggests there are lingering questions about the true extent of convergence of interests between Jakarta and Washington.

To be sure, the visit produced some important outcomes for both sides. The elevation of ties to the level of a strategic partnership is itself is a significant achievement. While the United States and Indonesia have had varying degrees of cooperation since Jakarta’s independence in 1949, the strategic partnership reflects a desire by the two countries to push for deeper and broader collaboration, building on the comprehensive partnership inked in 2010 under Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. A strengthened partnership is in in the interest of both sides. The United States wants to engage emerging powers like Indonesia – the world’s fourth largest nation, third largest democracy, and largest Muslim-majority country – to help address regional and global challenges. Indonesia is cementing ties with major players, including Washington, to support its rise as a regional power with global interests less than two decades since the start of its democratic transition following the fall of Suharto in 1998.

Jokowi’s trip also saw the strengthening of ties in the diplomatic, security, and economic realms. Diplomatically, the upgrading of ties to a strategic partnership was also accompanied by concrete steps to broaden and deepen the bilateral relationship. Most importantly, the United States and Indonesia established a new annual ministerial strategic dialogue to institutionalize regular high-level consultations. There was also attention given to broadening out the “Track II,” or non-government track, in U.S.-Indonesia relations, a key priority which Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi had also mentioned in her keynote address to the U.S.-Indonesia Society (USINDO) in October. These moves are significant as they bolster the architecture of the overall relationship.

Though security ties have been a key aspect of the relationship dating back to the 1960s, cooperation has waxed and waned, with the suspension of military ties after human rights abuses by Indonesian security forces in the 1990s, followed by greater counterterrorism and law enforcement cooperation during the George W. Bush years. During Jokowi’s visit, defense ties got a boost with the inking of a joint statement on comprehensive defense cooperation, which includes collaboration in far-reaching areas like the co-development and co-production of defense equipment. Both sides also signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on maritime cooperation, attesting to the importance of the maritime realm as Jokowi tries to realize his vision of Indonesia as a ”global maritime fulcrum” between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. A more detailed action plan on maritime cooperation is also already in the works.

The economic dimension of U.S.-Indonesia relations has traditionally lagged behind other areas of the relationship. U.S. trade with Indonesia in 2014 totaled just $28 billion, and foreign direct investment totaled just $65 billion from 2004 to 2012, with a significant part of that in extractive industries according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Yet even this area saw some promising developments during the visit. Indonesia inked more than $20 billion worth of business deals with major U.S. companies, including General Electric and Caterpillar, a significant number with some real substance behind it. Moreover, to the surprise of many, including Obama himself, Jokowi announced Indonesia’s intention to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-member free trade agreement whose members comprise around 40 percent of global GDP. In doing so, Indonesia, the world’s sixteenth largest economy and a member of the G-20, joins the Philippines and Thailand as interested parties who may eventually join the four other Southeast Asian countries (Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Brunei) that are currently part of the pact.

Yet the new strategic partnership label and the long list of deliverables obscure the true state of cooperation between the United States and Indonesia. First, it is unclear whether the two sides will follow through on ongoing cooperation smoothly. This is not merely an existential concern. Just days before Jokowi landed in Washington, Indonesian officials canceled the signing of a new work plan that would have institutionalized U.S. assistance to Jakarta’s newly created coast guard known as BAKAMLA, an entity critical to coordinating Indonesia’s dizzying array of maritime security actors. Sources suggested an all-too-familiar story in which domestic interest groups had thwarted what would have been a significant boost to Indonesia’s national capabilities. Though Indonesian officials said at the time that the pact would eventually be finalized, the hiccup was nonetheless frustrating for the U.S. side.

Similar concerns remain with respect to Jokowi’s commitment to join the TPP and institute economic reforms more generally. According to the World Bank’s latest regional update in October, Indonesia’s economy is expected to expand by 4.7 percent for 2015 – its lowest level since 2009 – in the wake of sluggish economic growth in China and Japan, tightening global financial conditions, low commodity prices, and a weak rupiah. To his credit, Jokowi, a former businessman, has been trying to make some changes, including a cabinet reshuffle in August. But the jury is still out on whether he can overcome powerful vested interests. Joining TPP, for instance, would require moving away from the rising protectionist tendencies we have witnessed in the past. Jokowi’s new trade minister, Tom Lembong, has publicly admitted that realizing Jokowi’s TPP ambition could take two or three years of hard work if the president is serious about it.

Second, actual cooperation between the United States and Indonesia on regional and global issues – the bedrock of such strategic partnerships – is currently far less than the label might suggest. For all the rhetoric, Jakarta currently does not seem to fit in as snugly into key U.S. priorities as the Obama administration would like. Globally, in terms of the fight against the Islamic State, while the joint statement did include a pledge to stem the flow of foreign terrorist fighters and step up counter-radicalization efforts, there is still little sign of bolder moves such as Indonesia joining the now 65-member U.S.-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. It is notable that neighboring Malaysia, the other Southeast Asian Muslim-majority state which shares similar domestic sensitivities, did so a month before Jokowi’s visit.

On climate change – another key priority for the Obama administration during the visit with global negotiations in Paris taking place from November 30 to December 11 – Indonesia, the world’s fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has hardly been a model partner. Though Jakarta did release its post-2020 climate mitigation commitment in October to boost international efforts to curb global warming, experts noted the lack of critical details on both the modeling as well as how the commitment itself would be accomplished. It also has not helped that the annual choking haze from forest fires in Indonesia has been at one of its worst-ever levels this year, grabbing headlines the world over and creating a regional crisis. On some days, emissions from the outbreak of forest fires were exceeding the emissions from all U.S. economic activity, the World Resources Institute pointed out. The ongoing haze crisis was also cited as the official reason for Jokowi’s decision to nix the Silicon Valley portion of his U.S. trip, where he was scheduled to meet top U.S. business leaders from Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook.

Though the U.S.-Indonesia joint statement during the visit referenced Indonesia as a leader in ASEAN, Jokowi’s administration has thus far been less committed to regionalism than Washington. While the United States was working hard to finalize a strategic partnership with ASEAN for much of 2015, this year has seen anxiety in several Southeast Asian capitals and in Washington about the Jokowi administration’s lack of interest in ASEAN. From its hesitance about the ASEAN Economic Community to its assertive behavior in sinking neighboring vessels to eradicate illegal fishing, Indonesia if anything has appeared to be turning away from ASEAN. Jokowi himself has shown little interest in foreign policy and little patience with regional summits thus far, skipping the retreat portion of the ASEAN Summit in April and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting hosted by the Philippines in November.

Third, structural differences between the United States and Indonesia continue to limit the extent of policy convergence on some issues. In particular, Indonesia’s preference for a free and active foreign policy has meant that it prefers to pursue a diversified set of relationships and exercise regional leadership instead of just backing initiatives by the United States, whether it be foreign interventions in the Middle East or even the basing of marines in Darwin, Australia as part of the Obama administration’s “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific.

The most vivid illustration of this balancing act during Jokowi’s visit was Indonesia’s response to the U.S. freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea, near one of China’s artificial islands on October 27. Even though Indonesia is concerned about China’s bold intrusions into its waters and the impact of Beijing’s assertiveness on regional stability, Jokowi’s address to Brookings hours after the FONOP predictably urged all parties – including Washington – “to exercise restraint.” Jokowi’s prepared remarks were overshadowed by those of Luhut Pandjaitan, one of his closest advisers, who said Indonesia disagreed with U.S. “power projection,” equating the move with ineffective wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though Pandjaitan is no stranger to such off the cuff remarks, his comments made headlines. Before Jokowi’s trip, his defense minister Ryamizard Ryacudu had also raised eyebrows when he suggested following consultations in China that if regional countries can manage the South China Sea on their own, there is no need to involve others – a clear reference to Washington.

To be sure, in spite of what some of these individual comments might suggest, Indonesia neither opposes U.S. preservation of freedom of navigation nor condones China’s growing assertiveness: Jakarta is merely concerned that such actions risk exacerbating U.S.-China rivalry, thereby undermining regional stability and Indonesia’s national autonomy by forcing it to pick sides. Indeed, the U.S.-Indonesia joint statement issued following the meeting between Obama and Jokowi contained a paragraph on the shared concerns of both sides in this regard, including a reference to upholding freedom of navigation and overflight. The broader point, though, is this: Indonesia’s foreign policy outlook in general and its cautious position on the South China Sea in particular prevent it from expressing strong public words of support for the United States. This is especially the case given the importance the Jokowi administration has placed on boosting economic ties with China thus far.

Of course, these lingering concerns about U.S.-Indonesia cooperation can be put to rest by both sides in the next few years within the framework of the new strategic partnership. This is only the beginning of Jokowi’s second year in office, and areas of focus within the strategic partnership, such as de-radicalization, energy cooperation, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, hold promise for further collaboration.

However, with the second Obama administration nearing its end, the time for the two countries to cement ties is winding down. While the Obama years have seen a consistent focus on Asia and deep engagement in Southeast Asia in spite of other global challenges, it is unclear if the next president in the White House, beginning in January 2017, will share that commitment to a similar degree or will have the same amount of political capital to act on it amid other priorities. Obama’s successor will also lack his unique personal connection to Indonesia having spent part of his childhood living in Jakarta.

Irrespective of what the next U.S. president does, if Indonesia does not demonstrate its value as a strategic partner, Washington’s patience may soon wear thin and Jakarta’s position within the growing list of U.S. partners in the Asia-Pacific may suffer as a result. The elevation of any relationship tends to be a double-edged sword: ties are taken to new heights, but expectations also rise. The challenge for both sides, therefore, will be to live up to their new strategic partnership over the next few years. 

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