Why Indonesia matters in US ties with South-east Asia

US Vice President Mike Pence (left) chats with Indonesia President Joko Widodo at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, on April 20. PHOTO: REUTERS

United States President Donald Trump's recent visit to Asia must be accounted as a high water mark of his foreign policy. Although it did not produce dramatic breakthroughs, it underlined America's commitment to relations with its partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

It is heartening that Mr Trump stuck to some of his controversial positions, most prominently on trade, without alienating China politically. Instead, he appears to have got on well with Chinese President Xi Jinping, signalling a degree of personal chemistry between the two leaders that should do both bilateral relations and regional security much good.

Coming at the end of the first year since his victory in the presidential election, Mr Trump's visit represents a symbolic anniversary present to the Indo-Pacific and its key institutions, including Asean and its associated processes. Indonesia plays a crucial role in these institutions. That is why closer relations between Jakarta and Washington will deepen the long-term underpinnings of American ties with this region.

Three issues will determine the course of bilateral relations: regional stability, trade and opposition to violent extremism. The US and Indonesia have a mutual interest in increasing cooperation in their interactions over each of these issues.

The case for taking Indonesia seriously on each front is clear. Indonesia is South-east Asia's largest country by virtue of geography, population and economy. It also has a free and active foreign policy that reveals the direction in which the combination of these strengths is taking the country.

It is not that Indonesia is powerful enough to ignore others: It merely is that it is too large to be ignored by even the major powers. China, Russia, Japan and India understand this reality. So does the US, but since it is in a power league of its own, there is a danger always that certain countries might fall out of Washington's strategic view.

It would be a pity if this were to happen to Indonesia (and South-east Asia by extension). China looms so large on the American strategic horizon that it shares with Japan and South Korea, American treaty allies, that there is a possibility of North-east Asia overshadowing the Indo-Pacific theatre, with South Asia in the form of India completing the eastern arc of that theatre.

South-east Asia would go missing in action on that strategic map. That would be a remarkable event since there is no Indo-Pacific without South-east Asia. This sub-region links North-east Asia to South Asia.

American strategy should focus on strengthening ties bilaterally with South-east Asian nations and institutionally with Asean. It is unimaginable that Washington can build sound and resilient security ties with South-east Asia, the buffer region between its Chinese and Indian strategies, without reaching out to Indonesia in particular.

Of course, this does not have to happen at the expense of America's bilateral relations with other countries. International relations are not a zero-sum game. However, Indonesia's presence on the map of US interests in South-east Asia is essential if regional stability is to advance those interests.


Let us turn to the other two considerations.

Trade has become a divisive issue between America and certain other countries, with the focus falling rather narrowly on the trade deficit.

According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), America had a US$13.2 billion (S$17.8 billion) trade deficit with Indonesia in 2016. This might appear alarming to some Americans, but they should consider the broader picture.

Two-way goods trade between the countries totalled US$25 billion in 2016, with US goods exports to Indonesia almost doubling in the last decade to US$6 billion in 2016, and goods imports totalling US$19.2 billion. Indeed, as the USTR points out, US services exports to Indonesia have increased more than 70 per cent in the last decade and now total US$2.5 billion. Services imports from Indonesia amounted to US$780 million in 2015. In 2016, Indonesia was America's 35th largest goods export market.

Indonesians would want their American friends to place the trade deficit in the perspective of Washington's relations with a country that is reinventing itself economically and is poised to consolidate its regional position as a member of the Group of 20 nations. The country has enjoyed a steady economic growth in the past 10 years. The World Bank has predicted that Indonesia will be the fifth largest economy in the world by year 2030.

Lastly, there is the other side of the coin to the cooperation and integration that trade stands for. It is terror. Here, it is Indonesians' turn to display keen understanding of the problems faced by America and other free nations. Many Indonesians were dismayed by the Trump administration's hostile rhetoric and intemperate policy stance towards the Muslims of the world. Given that Indonesia is home to the largest number of them, there was a feeling that a wedge was being driven between America and Indonesia.

These sentiments will take time to disappear, and they will do so only when it is clear that the US has not abandoned its openness to members of all faiths.

However, there is no denying that terrorism poses a common challenge to all countries. Indeed, given that the Muslim victims of terror outnumber non-Muslim victims, Indonesians possess an intrinsic understanding of how vulnerable the global Muslim sphere - the ummah - is to the scourge of violent extremism.

In the struggle against terror, Indonesia and America have a common stake in each other's success.

The recent decimation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would not have been possible without US support. Likewise, Indonesia deserves American attention as South-east Asia prepares for the return of disbanded insurgents from West Asia. The prolonged siege of the Philippine city of Marawi reveals how tenacious international brigands acting in the name of religion are, how deep and efficient are their networks of financing, military training and capacity for terror.

Regional stability, economic links and freedom from terror are fundamental objectives that tie the US and Indonesia together.

  • The writer is Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2017, with the headline Why Indonesia matters in US ties with South-east Asia. Subscribe