As a Javanese man who was raised in the Central Java city of Surakarta, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will pretend he does not know that the United States election is only a few days ahead when he hosts US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, scheduled for Wednesday. Less than week after his arrival in Jakarta Pompeo may turn into a lame duck foreign minister along with his boss President Donald Trump.
But Jokowi will not underestimate Trump’s chances of reelection. Neither will he squander the opportunity of Indonesia-US defense cooperation that his Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto has gained from his recent trip to Washington.
Indonesia, as well as all of ASEAN, needs a strong US military presence in the region, amid escalating tension in the region now that China has become more assertive in its claim over a large swath of the South China Sea. Indonesia, however, never wants to form any security alliance despite regional rivalries.
Now the guest from Washington, DC is seemingly engaged in an impossible mission: To persuade, or more precisely, to pressure Indonesia to work closely with the US in cornering and isolating China, which is Indonesia’s most important trading partner. The mission comes as Washington’s global power and influence is diminishing in part because Trump has slashed many fiscal and economic incentives, while unilaterally punishing its allies and strategic partners.
Last February, for example, Washington officially removed Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam—from the list of developing and least-developed countries. This meant Indonesia would no longer receive special differential treatment (SDT) available in the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures. The policy has definitely affected Indonesia’s exports to the US.
I can guess that Jokowi will be half-hearted in responding to any message from President Trump, especially after latest polling showed Trump’s likely defeat to Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden. If the polling is accurate, then Pompeo’s visit is technically a matter of courtesy.
This does not mean that Jokowi prefers Biden as the winner, however, because traditionally the Democratic Party tends to make a fuss about labor, human rights and fair-trade issues. The Republicans usually do not pay too much attention to those matters but focus on profits and advantages.
Trump is so obsessed with his trade war against China and he is so confident that only very few countries dare to refuse his call to join forces against China that he has decided to send his top Cabinet member several days before the Nov. 3 decision day.
On his visit to the region Pompeo said last week: “I’m sure that my meetings will also include discussions on how free nations can work together to thwart threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party,” as quoted by the Washington Post.
It seems to me that Trump is confident he will beat Biden and the Republicans will dominate the Senate and Congress. Therefore, he has ordered Pompeo to tour four countries in the Indian Ocean region to tell them to stand behind him in the face of China. In a show of hatred against China, Trump accused Beijing of being the party responsible for the spread of COVID-19, which has hit the US hardest.
Pompeo’s mission is simply telling his hosts to join Trump in the fight against China. As a sweetener, Pompeo is accompanied by top executives of the US International Development Finance Corporation on his visit to India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia. The federal finance institution is in charge of providing and facilitating the financing of private development projects in lower- and middle-income countries.
If Trump loses, all the agreements and commitments reached during Pompeo’s visit to Jakarta could mean nothing. If he wins, Biden will be preoccupied with the messy domestic situation, especially the devastating impact of the pandemic on the country’s economy.
Let us say Trump wins. Pompeo may not hold his current position and more importantly, knowing his impulsive leadership, Trump may forget or just ignore his own promises. On the other side, China will punish whoever accepts the role of US cheerleaders.
In bilateral talks during his visit to Jakarta, Pompeo will be accompanied by new US Ambassador to Indonesia Sung Kim. And on Oct. 29, when Muslims across the world celebrate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, Pompeo will attend a dialogue on religion and civilization that will be organized by GP Ansor, the youth wing of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). The world recognizes NU and Muhammadiyah as the champions of moderate, peaceful, tolerant and inclusive Islam.
Welcome to Jakarta Secretary of State Pompeo. Your attendance in the dialogue with GP Ansor will enrich your understanding about Islam in Indonesia.
Please don’t take it personally, when I consider your effort to involve Indonesia in your country’s confrontation with China to be impossible mission. This is not because we are afraid of China, but because Indonesia needs both the US and China and Indonesia will forever keep its free and active foreign policy intact.
Just in case President Trump loses, or wins but appoints a new secretary of state, please accept our sincere appreciation for your visit. Goodbye.
Senior editor at The Jakarta Post