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Pence's visit to Indonesia a good signal for South-east Asia

United States Vice-President Mike Pence's visit to Indonesia last week marked a welcome statement of American confidence in Indonesia and, by extension, South-east Asia.

It is clear that, following a bruising presidential campaign and the first few wobbly weeks in power, the Trump presidency has embarked on a journey of recognition: both of itself as the pre-eminent global power, and of the stakes which regions and countries have in its ability to carry out its historical responsibilities. 

South-east Asia provides crucial support for America's continuing global role.

It is interesting that Mr Pence's trip to Indonesia followed his visit to South Korea. North-east Asia today presents a classic security dilemma for the US. Washington will embolden North Korea if it allows it to get away with a nuclear programme that clearly threatens American allies South Korea and Japan, and potentially Australia along with the mainland US itself.

However, the price of action can be unacceptably high if Pyongyang carries out its threat to decimate South Korea and Japan, attack Australia and sink an American aircraft carrier that is headed for the Korean peninsula. Even as the Americans might be mulling over pre-emptive action, so are the North Koreans.


US Vice-President Mike Pence with his Indonesian counterpart Jusuf Kalla at a business forum in Jakarta on April 21. PHOTO: REUTERS

Even partial success by the Kim Jong Un regime, and its total destruction at American and allied hands, would upset the North-east Asian order substantially.

How this test of American (and North Korean) resolve plays out remains to be seen. Given the looming threat of war in North-east Asia, it must have been a relief for Mr Pence to visit Indonesia.

There, trade and not war made the headlines. Mr Pence and his Indonesian counterpart Jusuf Kalla celebrated more than US$10 billion (S$14 billion) in trade and investment agreements. They include the delivery of cutting-edge American technology to help meet Indonesia's energy needs, including affordable and renewable energy. Two deals were signed to enhance aviation and defence cooperation.

According to a recent study, the bilateral economic relationship is worth US$90 billion a year, and could increase to US$132 billion by 2019 if conditions are propitious. Although prospects are threatened by the Trump administration's call for an investigation into the trade imbalances between the US and 16 countries, including Indonesia, Washington's trade deficit with Jakarta did not stop progress being made on trade deals that will create jobs in both countries.

On the political front, Mr Pence complimented Indonesia for its ability to sustain its remarkable model of religious tolerance. Those remarks have been overshadowed by the political use of religion to deprive a popular Christian Chinese politician from winning the Jakarta gubernatorial race. Nevertheless, Indonesia stands out as a moderate Muslim-majority country at a time when terrorism and extremism are seeking to hijack the political agenda of much of the Muslim world.

Importantly, the fact that Mr Pence, who visited the national mosque, made those comments should help to restore some credibility to America's own image as a secular nation. The travel ban on Muslims from certain countries had incensed public opinion although it did not apply to Indonesia, home to the most Muslims in the world. As on the economic front, the Pence visit underscored the political significance of the symbiotic relationship between the two countries. Those ties, between the world's second- and third-largest democracies, need to outlast election-cycle rhetoric or loaded appeals to citizens. Mr Kalla, for example, had criticised the travel ban although it had nothing to do with Indonesia.  

THE LARGER ASEAN PICTURE

Indonesia's relations with the US contribute to the state of play between America and South-east Asia. As the region's largest country and economy, Indonesia's heft is important in securing a lasting relationship with the US.

There are indications that the new US administration will not neglect South-east Asia. News that Asean foreign ministers will meet US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington next month will help assuage fear of strategic abandonment in the region. Although the meeting will represent a lower-level diplomatic exercise than the leaders' summit which former president Barack Obama hosted last year, it does suggest that the US sees Asean as a credible regional organisation.

Initiatives such as the Tillerson meeting underline Asean's centrality in the intersecting relationships of great and middle powers - America, China, Japan, South Korea, India and Australia - in this region. All these countries recognise that Asean is an honest broker whose quest for strategic autonomy means that it cannot be predisposed against any power.

America's efforts to engage Asean would send out a clear message that it is not willing to let any other country divide and rule Asean - or worse, unite and rule it. 

No matter how the South China Sea dispute plays out, Asean has demonstrated to Washington that it will remain indispensable to the interaction of extra-regional powers.

There is a happy irony in this. Asean, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, began life as a Cold War organisation associated with the West in the conflict with the Soviet Union and its South-east Asian allies.

Today, Asean encompasses former regional enemies. More significant, as the balance of interests between Washington and Beijing changes rapidly, it is not viewed as a Chinese grouping by America nor as an American grouping by China. Asean is embedded deeply in the historical, economic and cultural integrity of South-east Asia.

It would be invaluable to all major powers in the peaceful evolution of their interests in this part of the world.

Mr Pence's visit to Indonesia underscores Asean's importance to the United States. Next month's meeting will show how ties could be taken further.  

• The writer heads Pereira International, a Singapore-based political consultancy. He is also a member of Harvard University's Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2017, with the headline 'Pence's visit to Indonesia a good signal for South-east Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe