International relations, National security, South China Sea | Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

5 April 2018

There is some of the new but much more of the old in US-Indonesia defence relations following the US Defense Secretary’s visit, writes Mustafa Izzuddin.

The aim of US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ first official visit to Indonesia in January, the second by a top official from the Donald Trump administration after Vice President Mike Pence, was to reinvigorate US-Indonesia defence relations.

The Pentagon is committed to cultivating and enhancing bilateral defence cooperation in line with US national security interests. Central to this mission is countering China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. Labelling China a “strategic competitor” means the US views China as a national security concern, with great power competition unavoidable between Washington and Beijing.

This geopolitical rivalry is anticipated to play out vigorously in the Indo-Pacific, which includes Southeast Asia – Indonesia being at the heart of it as the largest country.

Foreign policy matters such as the South China Sea disputes were on the US backburner for most of 2017. But the focus was redirected to the South China Sea in the wake of the combative reaction of the Chinese leadership to what they perceive as a provocative move by the US in sailing a warship past a disputed island in January.

More on this: Power plays in Indonesian waters

The willingness of China to show its strength in the South China Sea and the stated aim of the US to uphold the rule of law and freedom of navigation means that the US needs to actively re-engage in regional affairs by shoring up support among friendly countries, not least Indonesia.

Although the Joko Widodo (Jokowi) government has been steadfast in its position that Indonesia is not a claimant in those disputes, it has its own conflict with China over the waters around the Natuna Islands, making territorial integrity a flashpoint in Indonesia-China relations.

At one point, the leadership in Jakarta was so concerned about the dispute getting out of hand – seeing it as a matter of sovereignty and nationalistic pride – that it was prepared to countenance a name change of the waters to the North Natuna Sea. So it was not surprising that to court Indonesia, Mattis used the term North Natuna Sea to endorse Indonesia’s claim to their maritime waters.

Mattis described Indonesia as a “maritime fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific area” and in particular between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This dovetails with Jokowi’s oft-forgotten grand maritime vision known as the Global Maritime Fulcrum, which Mattis believes the US could help Indonesia achieve. It is also a counterpoint to China’s own global maritime ambitions through its Belt and Road Initiative.

Mattis also promised Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu that he would look into the possibility of lifting sanctions on Indonesian military’s special forces unit, Kopassus. These were imposed due to allegations of human rights abuses and have curtailed US-Indonesia defence cooperation. It is however unclear at this point whether any real progress can be made on this front.

More on this: Southeast Asia pins its hopes on US-Japan alliance

The Mattis visit was meant to provide assurance to the defence establishment in Jakarta that existing defence cooperation between Indonesia and the US would continue. Included in this defence cooperation are visits by defence officials, exchanges of defence personnel, and joint military exercises such as between the Indonesian Navy and the US Marine Corps on marine tactical warfare. Arms purchases by Jakarta such as Apache helicopters and F-16s will also likely continue, if not increase, given the much larger defence budget passed under the Trump administration.

Similarly, counterterrorism funding from Washington to Jakarta, which has amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars, is likely to continue.

However, expectations were mismatched between Washington and Jakarta on how to manage China. Mattis appeared to be mistaken in his belief that Indonesia would support US efforts to contain China or welcome US assistance in the Natunas. Clashing with China in the Natunas does not equate to Jakarta distancing itself from Beijing and navigating closer to Washington. Mattis not only misread Jakarta’s intentions vis-à-vis China, but misunderstood the core tenets of Indonesia’s foreign policy, which has long been premised on the bebas-aktif (independent and active) doctrine, including under Jokowi’s government.

So when Mattis met Jokowi, the Secretary got no more than diplomatic niceties and rhetorical statements of assurance that Indonesia valued its bilateral relations with the US; and the Indonesian leader did so without casting aspersions on China. Jakarta was unlikely to choose Washington over Beijing as China is now the second largest investor in Indonesia, after Singapore.

More on this: Towards an Indo-Pacific strategic partnership

Indonesia was also not receptive to the American definition of the Indo-Pacific concept, as it appeared that the US was bringing India into the regional equation for the express purpose of isolating China or countering rising Chinese influence. Until and unless the US moves closer to Indonesia’s inclusive version of the Indo-Pacific concept as relayed to Mattis by Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Jakarta would remain uninterested.

What Mattis also failed to realise was that Jokowi is a president focused on economic diplomacy, whereby foreign policy is used to advance a country’s economic interests. As a result, Mattis was better able to strike a chord with the senior defence officials he had met during the trip, as they spoke the same language of defence and security rather than trade and investment.

Rising nationalistic fervency among the domestic populace will likely hamper any upswing in relations between Indonesia and the US. Trump’s anti-Islamic rhetoric, especially during the presidential campaign, remains fresh in the minds of Indonesians. Responding to overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian feeling and the protest by Indonesians of Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, Marsudi reiterated to Mattis Indonesia’s support for Palestine and cautioned the US against cutting its aid to assist Palestinian refugees.

Mattis’ Jakarta visit to advance US-Indonesia defence relations can be viewed as a qualified success. Although the potential exists for closer defence cooperation, a more realistic prognosis would be a reassertion of the status quo. US-Indonesia defence relations are likely to be painstakingly kept in neutral gear all through the Trump administration and with Jokowi in office.

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