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Jakarta Post

Recreational visit by US Commerce Secretary Ross

  • Kornelius Purba

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, November 5, 2019   /   09:25 am
Recreational visit by US Commerce Secretary Ross US President Donald Trump speaks on the telephone. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

First of all, I apologize to United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross for stating that his visit to Jakarta this week will be little more than for relaxation and recreational purposes. It may seem an insult to the former banker and investor but his arrival, after the nearly total boycott by US President Donald Trump of the annual ASEAN Summit with its eight major trading partners in Bangkok over the weekend, is clearly a case of poor timing.

Trump’s absence was a blatant attempt to insult the US’ close friends in the region. He might have wanted to avoid his Chinese counterpart, or he is preoccupied with his domestic agenda, but it is the US that has to pay the price for his inaction. ASEAN leaders have known from the very beginning that Trump will only ever act as a businessman who only cares about profits or losses. Friendship counts for nothing.

Under normal circumstances — meaning under the Obama administration or those of his predecessors — the three-day visit of a US commerce secretary would have been carefully prepared for by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, his economic ministers and Indonesian exporters to the US. Again, normally, this would be a very good opportunity for the President to ask for major trade concessions, such as on the problematic palm oil exports, and other economic privileges, as Jakarta is Washington’s strategic partner.

Normally, apart from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the top priorities for Indonesia are the US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Again, US Ambassador to Indonesia Joseph R. Donovan, Jr. would generally be Jokowi’s key contact person with the White House.

For the United States-Indonesia Society (USINDO) it seemed business as usual when they sent “luncheon” invitations for Nov. 6, to members of its club, members of the American Chamber of Commerce and to selected Indonesians.

“Don’t miss this rare opportunity to meet the US Secretary of Commerce for a candid discussion on economic and trade issues between the United States and Indonesia. Secretary Wilbur Ross will be in Jakarta Nov. 5-7, and has agreed to meet with private sector leaders Nov. 6,” USINDO said in its invitation.

Tickets for the exclusive luncheon were available for US$100 each, it added.

But the situation has totally changed since Trump replaced Obama in January 2017. As shown by Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Pandjaitan, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his eldest son Eric Trump are the most effective channels to reach the US president.

This reminds us of the 32-year era of Soeharto, during which businesspeople simply went to his children to win contracts or concessions. Forget the normal standard of procedures and protocol practiced by Trump’s predecessors. Now maybe business dealings can return to what Indonesians call KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism).

President Trump is facing an impeachment threat, although its process is at a very early stage and the Democrats will be unlikely to unseat the great fan of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for many reasons, quite apart from the Senate being controlled by the Republicans. But many world leaders and citizens expect that the impeachment attempt will at least help foil Trump’s reelection bid next year.

A Trump victory would mean he would continue to disrupt the world with his tweets and erratic acts until 2025. Social media tools have become his official spokespeople. He can easily veto the decisions of his Cabinet members or administration through his Twitter account or scold other world leaders through his social media platforms.

The world is tired of his management style, his unpredictability, confrontational and dirty talk. His behavior does not reflect the leadership of the world’s most powerful country, but more often seems like that of Kim and other dictators.

The US president intentionally humiliated the 10-member ASEAN and their most important trading partners over the weekend by sending the lowest-level ever US delegation to the annual East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bangkok over the weekend. He only sent Ross and his National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien (a non-Cabinet member) to one of the world’s most powerful annual gatherings.

When attending the EAS in Hanoi in 2017, Trump was evidently irritated with the traditional “ASEAN handshake” during the photo session after the summit. He was also upset because he was not the center of attention. Last year he sent Vice President Mike Pence to the summit in Singapore.

What can we expect from Trump? Look at the way he treated the Kurds. He abandoned them just after the Kurds worked side by side with US troops in crushing the Islamic State movement in Syria. Indonesia and the region has become accustomed to Trump’s behavior. We do need the US, but what can we do in dealing with such a character? If Trump wins next year’s election, we must be more than prepared to live with minimum friendship from the US. The international media speaks of ASEAN’s dependence on the US in facing China. But the regional grouping has established its own wisdom in dealing with these economic giants.

Trade secretary Ross, welcome to Jakarta. Enjoy the city, but we have little expectation from your visit, because your president can veto any deals you may strike with Indonesia.