As Southeast Asia’s biggest economy Indonesia is eager to play a mediating role to reduce tension of rivalry between the US and China in the Southeast Asian region, with Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto stating recently that Indonesia could become “bridge of peace” between the two powers. However, the US seemingly continues to exclude Indonesia from its Asia-Pacific strategy.
After US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin skipped Indonesia and selected Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines instead in his first visit as defense minister last month, Vice President Kamala Harris in her symbolic and first visit as vice president to Asia this week, again passed Indonesia by, visiting only Singapore and Vietnam.
In fact, during a busy schedule of US officials flocking the region after Joe Biden was inaugurated as the US president last November, Indonesia was only visited by a deputy minister – Deputy US Secretary of State Wendy Sherman – in May.
Meanwhile, China high-ranking officials, including ministerial level, have visited not only Jakarta but also provinces across Indonesia, with Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan, also President Joko Widodo closest advisor, hosting China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Parapat, North Sumatra early this year. China has also pumped billions of dollar investment into numerous project, from energy, mining to toll road, across Indonesia.
So, why does the US seem to ignore Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy, and a country with world’s largest Muslim population, in a time when it needs every support it can get to rival China’s growing influence in this part of the world?
First, there is an indication that the US has given up on Indonesia, realizing that the country has been growing too closer to China to take its side, or it becomes very difficult to persuade the country to support its Southeast Asian policies or even to just stay neutral.
If the US really assesses Indonesia to fall into this characteristic, then they could get it wrong. While it’s true that Indonesia has gained economic benefits from its close relations with China, it doesn’t necessarily take side with the world’s second largest economy. At least, not yet. Indonesia still wants to maintain its foreign policy dictum: Rowing between two reefs, or non-alliance foreign policy. This stance has been repeatedly stressed by many Indonesian officials, including President Joko Widodo.
Besides, there are still two stumbling blocks in Indonesia-China relations: China’s persistent claim on Natuna Islands, and suspicion from many Indonesians on the massive influx of China’s workers into Indonesia as part of China’s investment. These two issues could explode into a conflict which can negate all the good relation other sectors, especially the blossoming economic ties.
Nevertheless, the perception and action taken by the US to distance itself from Indonesia could push the Southeast nation to get even closer to China.
The second reason why Harris excluded Indonesia from her trip is because of the recent Taliban’s victory and US defeat in Afghanistan. Harris possibly is not ready to answer question about Afghanistan or Taliban by Muslim public inside the country with the world’s most Muslim population.
She could not answer questions about the defeat of the US, or what the US will do about the Taliban without causing controversy.
The third reason on why the US seems to side step Indonesia is that it is part of punishment or warning to Indonesia for it getting too close to China. The US wants to say that you can’t be our friend if you get too close to the enemy, hoping that Indonesia can realize that it is too much to lose without the world’s largest economy as your friend.
But actually Indonesia has gradually moved away from the US, with their recent two-way trade and direct investment tending to be stagnant while Indonesia-China relations are growing exponentially at the same time.
The fourth reason why the US seems to ignore Indonesia is simply because the latter has lost its clout in the eyes of the former. During Suharto and then Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono Indonesia was seen as a regional power with considerable influence among other countries in Southeast Asia. Many even saw Indonesia as the leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Its image as the representative of the 10 ASEAN nations in global forum, like the G-20, strengthens Indonesia’s clout in many international and bilateral forums. However, under President Joko Widodo Indonesia has run out of initiatives and can’t lead ASEAN in solving various internal and external problems of the grouping. Without Indonesia’s persistent leadership and efforts, the grouping is going nowhere. ASEAN’s failure to react in a united voice to the military coup in Myanmar, for instance, has been seen as the beginning of the end of the grouping’s relevance.
Seeing the divisiveness of ASEAN, the US apparently has decided to deal with each individual nation rather than as a grouping. After all it’s useless to put an effort dealing with a grouping which can’t agree on many issues. Now, the US pick nations it knows for certain will support its rivalry with China. And it’s not Indonesia.
However, Indonesia is still a country with the biggest economy, population and territory in Southeast Asia. Excluding Indonesia will not make the US attempt to rival China in this part of the world work, let alone successful. Ignoring Indonesia means the US allows half of the region take side with China. Sooner or later the US will realize its mistake. And let’s hope it’s not too late.