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South-east Asia and America under Trump

US-Indonesia: Growing distance

The election of Donald Trump as America's next president has introduced uncertainty into ties between the world's superpower and other countries. Five scholars at the ISEAS -Yusof Ishak Institute evaluate the likely impact on key nations in South-east Asia.

Several Indonesian leaders, including President Joko Widodo, have congratulated Mr Donald Trump on his victory and signalled a desire to continue diplomatic and economic ties.

But others were less enthused: Vice-President Jusuf Kalla called Mr Trump "a threat to global peace". Mr Din Syamsuddin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council, or council of Muslim scholars, similarly expressed concern that Mr Trump's victory on the back of anti-Muslim bigotry could lead to new tensions between America and the Muslim world.

Recognising that Mr Trump's win could worsen tension in the Asia-Pacific, Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu cautioned Mr Trump not to "bring that matter here (to Indonesia) - don't give us more problems".

Several Indonesian politicians like Mr Fadli Zon, deputy speaker of the House of Representatives, have reportedly called for restrictions or bans on Mr Trump's business interests in Indonesia, in a tit-for-tat response to his Muslim ban and trade protectionism.

Despite a lack of elite consensus on what a Trump presidency would mean for Indonesia, it does seem to be the case that the Jakarta elites are attempting to play down fears of Mr Trump's Islamophobia and his protectionist posture.

The editorials of several major Indonesian newspapers reflect cautious optimism, with The Jakarta Post writing that despite Mr Trump's virulent rhetoric, his promise to get along with all nations is indicative that the United States under him "could do Indonesia good".

Indonesian Muslims on the ground are divided into two groups. One group, represented by Muslim organisations Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, believes that Mr Trump should be given the benefit of the doubt as those anti-Muslim remarks were uttered to pander to his conservative Republican base.

Mr Trump's triumph has intersected with politics in Indonesia becoming "Islamised", most clearly manifested in the anti-Ahok demonstrations against Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is an ethnic Chinese and Christian, for his alleged blasphemy against Islam. The creeping Islamisation of Indonesian politics could well compel Jakarta to keep Washington at a distance, given Mr Trump's anti-Muslim bigotry.

These "moderate" Muslims are hoping that upon entering the White House, he will not enact policies against Muslims but instead practise diplomacy towards the Muslim world.

The other group, represented by "radical" Muslims belonging to hard-line organisations such as the Islamic Defenders' Front, has taken Mr Trump's remarks at face value and, hence, considers him to be genuinely anti-Muslim.

Mr Trump's triumph has intersected with politics in Indonesia becoming "Islamised", most clearly manifested in the anti-Ahok demonstrations against Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is an ethnic Chinese and Christian, for his alleged blasphemy against Islam.

The creeping Islamisation of Indonesian politics, whereby the secular space becomes increasingly diminished as a consequence, could well compel Jakarta to keep Washington at a distance, given Mr Trump's anti-Muslim bigotry.

If America under President Trump were to pivot away from South-east Asia, Jakarta may then navigate closer to China rather than stay neutral between Washington and Beijing, in line with Indonesia's "bebas dan aktif" (independent and active) foreign policy doctrine.

Such a tilt, however, would depend on Beijing making the right moves in choosing bilateral economic engagement over barging into waters in the South China Sea around Indonesia's Natuna Islands.

Should Mr Trump's protectionist policy be enacted, it could hurt Indonesian exports. America is one of Indonesia's major export markets, worth about US$16 billion (S$22.8 billion) last year. As a consequence, Indonesia may be compelled to look elsewhere, including Beijing, to make up the shortfall.

One thing, however, is for sure: Jakarta-Washington relations under a Trump presidency are unlikely to be as closely intertwined as under the Obama administration.


  • Leo Suryadinata is a visiting senior fellow and Mustafa Izzuddin is a fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2016, with the headline 'US-Indonesia: Growing distance'. Print Edition | Subscribe