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Indonesia overlooked by Trump's interpretation of Indo-Pacific

  • Bradley Wood
    Bradley Wood

    Master of Strategic Studies (Advanced) student at Australian National University

Canberra | Wed, December 20, 2017 | 03:29 pm
Indonesia overlooked by Trump's interpretation of Indo-Pacific U.S.A vice president Mike pence (c) accompanied by Grand Imam Nasaruddin Umar (r) and Chairman of the Istiqlal Mosque Muhammad Muzammil Basyuni (l) during his visit to the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Thursday, April 21, 2017. The visit was part of a 10-days asia pacific tour. JP/ (JP/Seto Wardhana)

The Trump administration’s approach to the Indo-Pacific has focused on improving bilateral relations with Southeast Asian states situated closer to China, neglecting Indonesia.

The Trump administration’s interpretation of the term “Indo-Pacific” remains vague. It was rarely used by the Barack Obama administration, which preferred “Asia-Pacific.” It appears the Trump administration prefers the broader term, a possible shift away from the narrow China-centric description of the region, to one that includes India.

The “Indo-Pacific” concept is well understood by academics and policymakers in the region to widen the strategic view of the Asia-Pacific to one that reflects a single strategic system comprising of both the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific.

Indonesia’s size, geographic location, and its de facto leadership status of ASEAN should make Indonesia a heavyweight consideration for the Trump administration as part of its approach to the Indo-Pacific. However, Indonesia has remained largely absent.

In April, Vice President Mike Pence visited Indonesia during his first official visit to the region. Pence’s visit was a promising sign of the Trump administration’s early engagement with Indonesia and ASEAN. But Pence’s limited foreign policy mandate at the time reduced the overall significance of the visit, as it aimed mainly to improve economic ties between the two countries. Remaining absent, however, was any new emphasis on American leadership in Southeast Asia, where China’s economic influence and military might continue to grow.

Then in July,   President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo invited President Donald Trump to Jakarta during their first official bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Trump answered, “We’ll get there, it’s a place I would like to go actually.” But when Trump embarked on a 12-day tour of Asia in November, the longest Asian tour of any American president in a quarter of a century, Indonesia was not included.

Moreover, Indonesia has also struggled to get US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to visit Jakarta. Tillerson did not visit Indonesia during his first trip to Asia in March, nor did he visit the country in August during his Southeast Asia trip.   So far, Tillerson has visited China three times; South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines twice; and paid a visited to Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and India. This indicates the Trump administration is prioritizing its North Asian allies and mainland Southeast Asian states except for the Philippines, all of which remain more at risk to China’s growing sphere of influence.

While Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi has met the Secretary of State on the sidelines of multilateral engagements such as the recent ASEAN summit in November, the encounter does not equate the undivided attention and focus that an official visit provides. This sense of diplomatic neglect has also been amplified by recent speculation that Tillerson is likely to step down this January. This will be viewed by Indonesia as either an opportunity to build a new relationship with the next Secretary of State or as a more futile scenario whereby Indonesia becomes even more overlooked.

Added to this anxiety are revelations of a shrinking State Department, depleting leadership ranks, and falling application rates for new staff. The State Department also plans to cut funding for Indonesia from US$129 million in 2016 to just $89 million by 2018. While Indonesia will appear to be the largest recipient of American foreign assistance in Southeast Asia, the country will continue to receive less in per capita terms than Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Indonesia has long been trying to get the Trump administration to pay closer attention to it as an emerging regional power within the Indo-Pacific. Just days before President Trump’s inauguration, Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, remarked that the inauguration opened “a window of strategic opportunity for Indonesia in its relations with an enduring partner.”

Luhut has recently appealed to the US advocating for increased engagement with Indonesia as an important strategic buffer in the Indo-Pacific. Luhut said, “It is unimaginable that Washington can build sound and resilient ties with Southeast Asia, the buffer region between its Chinese and Indian strategies, without reaching out to Indonesia in particular.” Indeed, there is no real Indo-Pacific strategy in Southeast Asia without including Indonesia.

 But Trump’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – a country which Indonesia has no formal diplomatic ties with – will now make him an unwanted figure here for the foreseeable future. The Palestine issue for Indonesia not only represents a focal point of contention for Muslims nationally, but it also resonates more broadly, as it is viewed by many Indonesians as a policy that supports Israel’s colonization of Palestine.

A visit by the first American President who officially supports such a controversial policy will potentially provide an opportunity for Jokowi’s political opponents to mass-mobilize a wide array of political and religious groups to protest such a visit. Jokowi will wish to avoid being targeted by another round of mass protests ahead of the 2019 presidential election.

It makes sense that Trump prioritized the Southeast Asian states most at risk to China in his first year.However, as the de facto leader of ASEAN and the next-door neighbor of Singapore – the 2018 ASEAN chair – Indonesia should get the attention it seeks next year.  Tillerson or his replacement will now be the only ones likely to visit Indonesia anytime soon.


The writer is a Master of Strategic Studies (Advanced) student at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. He was the 2017 Robert O’Neill scholar at the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in Singapore. He tweets @bradleywoodAU.


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