Pompeo to visit Jakarta amid increased US-China rivalry

Mike Pompeo speaks during a joint press conference with Croatia's Prime Minister in Dubrovnik on Oct 2, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Amid the increasingly aggressive rivalry between the United States and China, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's planned visit to Jakarta next week may further consolidate efforts to antagonise Beijing and test Indonesia's free and active foreign policy.

Indonesia will be the last country on Mr Pompeo's overseas itinerary, which starts this weekend in India, before moving to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said she would have a bilateral meeting with Mr Pompeo, and expressed hopes that the visit would strengthen the relationship between Indonesia and the US.

"The US is one of Indonesia's most important partners. We hope to continuously build a strong and beneficial partnership with the US," she said this week. In a press conference on Thursday (Oct 22), Mr Pompeo said that in all of the meetings he wanted to find the best ways to cooperate to "preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific" and discuss "how free nations can work together to thwart threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party".

Washington has been aggressively promoting the Indo-Pacific order, a re-imagining of the Asia-Pacific region that aims to take the spotlight away from China's growing influence in the region.

Most recently, the US has turned to Southeast Asian and South Asian nations to recruit allies in the superpower rivalry. Speaking about the planned visit, US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, David Stilwell, said Indonesia was important because it was a "pillar of a free and open Indo-Pacific."

"It's in a very key and strategic location. The United States and Indonesia share a vision of a rules-based order in Southeast Asia, and the United States is a stalwart supporter of Indonesia's sovereignty," he said in a statement.

Mr Pompeo's expected trip to Jakarta comes following Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto's visit to Washington last week for a meeting with US Defence Secretary Mark Esper. Mr Prabowo and Mr Esper agreed to further tighten defence and maritime security cooperation between the two countries.

The two ministers discussed regional security, bilateral defence priorities and defence acquisitions, the US Department of Defence reported in a statement issued on Oct 16.

An international relations expert from Bandung's Padjajaran University, Teuku Rezasyah, said there had to be some sort of unfinished business from Prabowo's visit to the Pentagon last week to warrant Pompeo's visit.

He said the US might be seeking follow-up from Indonesia on Mr Prabowo's visit to Washington and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's visit to Indonesia, among other issues, especially with regard to the government's rejection of the proposal that US spy planes operate in Indonesia, and the rejection of China's plan to turn certain Indonesian regions into bases for military logistics.

Reuters recently reported that Indonesia had rebuffed US high-level approaches to grant landing and refueling rights to its P-8 surveillance planes that monitor Chinese military activity in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, during his visit to Jakarta in early September, Mr Prabowo's Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe reportedly proposed that Indonesia build a military base, which was also rejected. Mr Prabowo's spokesman Dahnil Azhar Simanjuntak said Indonesia upheld its free and active foreign policy.

"We always uphold the principle of a free and active foreign policy, especially with regard to military installations. Indonesia will never participate in or become involved in conflicts with countries in the world, let alone become a proxy," he said in a video aired on Kompas TV in September.

Mr Rezasyah said that Indonesia's refusal to entertain either request brought about its own risks, namely the loss of opportunity to extract concessions from both sides.

"If Indonesia says yes to China, there will be added value to the existing comprehensive strategic partnership agreement, for example financial assistance for infrastructure development. The same applies with the US … What is certain is that in the context of global rivalry, these two countries are willing to pay a high price," Mr Rezasyah suggested.

"The US may set up a situation where it acknowledges that Indonesia is independent, but can indirectly support the US by ensuring the security of its strategic straits … For that, there needs to be a concession, perhaps to prove that Indonesia is truly independent, (the US may) give permission or (alleviate) pressure on Indonesia in its purchase of Sukhoi 35," he said.

Mr Stilwell has said the US has been very forthcoming in maritime domain awareness and maritime security, as Indonesia had pushed back on Chinese ships fishing in its Exclusive Economic Zones in the North Natuna Sea, which borders the South China Sea.

"When you ask what the US has to offer, it's security," he said.

Indonesia, unlike several other countries in Southeast Asia, is not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute, in which the sovereignty and exclusive rights that countries have over the busy maritime trade routes are contested.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.