US envoy to Indonesia says Washington wants to boost trade ties with Jakarta

In 2018, bilateral trade between the US and Indonesia stood at about US$29 billion (S$39.6 billion) - but this was about just half the amount between the US and Vietnam, said US Ambassador to Indonesia Joseph R. Donovan Jr.
In 2018, bilateral trade between the US and Indonesia stood at about US$29 billion (S$39.6 billion) - but this was about just half the amount between the US and Vietnam, said US Ambassador to Indonesia Joseph R. Donovan Jr.PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA - The trade war brewing between economic giants US and China has stirred up anxiety about Asean's fate in the fight, but US Ambassador to Indonesia Joseph R. Donovan Jr on Thursday (June 13) sought to soothe concerns, saying dispute or not, the US hopes to boost trade ties with Indonesia.

"It's important to remember what the issues are in our trade dispute with China. What we're seeking is an enforceable solution to China's market-distorting practices and policies, and that's the key," he said at a Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club dialogue, when asked what lies ahead for the region as a trade war looms.

"Whether or not there is a trade dispute between the US and China, we're looking to grow our trade relationship with Indonesia."

After all, while trade between the US and Indonesia has been rising, there is more to be done.

Last year, bilateral trade stood at about US$29 billion (S$39.6 billion) - but this was about just half the amount between the US and Vietnam, noted Mr Donovan.

"What that shows you is that we're only scratching the surface with Asean's largest economy and with the most populous nation in South-east Asia," he said. "So there's a lot of room to grow in terms of our bilateral trade and investment."

The US, he added, is studying the economic partnership between the two countries to come up with recommendations on how to move it forward.

The 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Indonesia and the US this year comes amid heightened global tensions, but Mr Donovan was optimistic about the future of wide-ranging ties between the two countries.

There are abundant opportunities in areas such as nurturing young people - there are about 68 million Indonesians aged from 10 to 24 - and Indonesia's booming digital economy.

Mr Donovan noted that more than 35,000 Indonesians have taken part in the US' Young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative for leadership development since the programme's launch in 2013.

"We invest in these young leaders because the future belongs to them. We firmly believe that the youth in South-east Asia are leading the way towards a brighter future," he said.

And while the number of Indonesians studying in the US over the past years has been about 9,000 - the highest in over a decade - "we need to do a better job on this".

The US is keen to work with the Indonesian government to expand the Indonesian Endowment Fund for Education - a scholarship from Indonesia's Ministry of Finance - to include more US universities, and promote policies that will boost educational opportunities and partnerships in the country.

Indonesia's digital economy has emerged as a leader in Asean, with the country home to a stable of online giants such as ride-hailing firm Go-Jek and e-commerce company Tokopedia.

"The US is the birthplace of many digital technologies, but to anyone who has ever visited Jakarta, it's all too evident that the future of the digital economy is taking shape here in Indonesia," said Mr Donovan.

US companies have been working to help equip Indonesians with the skills needed, he said, citing Apple, which chose Indonesia as the site for its first developer academy in South-east Asia, and Google, which offers digital literacy and skills training.

"Working together, US and Indonesian innovators are changing every aspect of our countries' economies for the better, making farms and factories more competitive, cities smarter and safer, and creating new partnerships," he said.

Mr Donovan congratulated Indonesia on "another milestone for its democracy" - the conclusion of its first simultaneous legislative and presidential elections in April.

And congratulating incumbent Joko Widodo and his running mate Ma'ruf Amin - the winners of the presidential race, according to the official tally by the Election Commission - he added: "We're prepared to work with them going forward on a wide range of issues including strengthening our strategic partnership."

The election campaign was generally peaceful, and it is important that any allegations "be handled in a way that is consistent with Indonesia's legal system", he said.

Retired army general Prabowo Subianto - Mr Joko's opponent, who has alleged electoral fraud - will be challenging the presidential election results in Indonesia's constitutional court.