Has Indonesia welcomed the US pivot?
28 Jun 2013|
President Barack Obama and Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono participate in the arrival ceremony at the Istana Merdeka State Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Nov. 9, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

It’s no secret that in the early days of the US pivot’s announcement, there was a split between Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s initial caution about US troop presence in Darwin and the President’s more measured response. With more of the pivot revealed since late 2011, it’s worth looking at how Indonesia’s reaction towards it has crystallised—not just towards the military dimension of the pivot but also other elements relating to multilateral engagement, economics and trade, and democracy.

Indonesia continues to be uncertain about what the military elements of the pivot mean for its security. In one sense, there are more opportunities for defence cooperation with both the US and Australia, including military education exchange programs and joint exercises. However, there still remains some hesitation about the presence of Marines close to Indonesia’s shores. As noted by Vice Presidential advisor Dewi Fortuna Anwar, historical suspicions about US interference in Indonesia continue to cast the deployment to Darwin in a negative light.

Yet the more pressing strategic point for Indonesia is the effect of the military rebalance on China. If it was to result in strategic escalation between the US and China and a destabilisation of the region, that wouldn’t be in Indonesia’s interest. Indonesia isn’t a claimant to territories in the South China Sea, although there’s an overlap between the Indonesian claims for the EEZ around the Natuna Islands and China’s maritime claims. As a result, it’s watching with interest the outcomes of China’s interactions with other ASEAN states. As Columbia University’s Ann Marie Murphy pointed out at last week’s ANU–CSIS Jakarta–Weatherhead East Asia Institute conference in Jakarta, ‘Intersections of Power, Politics and Conflict in Asia’, the Philippines effectively lost the Scarborough Shoal after its confrontation with China in December. While the Philippines had hoped the US would come to its aid under the Mutual Defense Treaty, a deal was brokered instead that resulted in Philippines Navy withdrawing but China occupying the area. Indonesia has fewer options to invoke US assistance than the Philippines, and with a navy in dire need of an upgrade, it’s in its interests to keep military confrontations in the region to a minimum.

Indonesia has a preference for multilateral diplomacy, which has been strengthened by greater US interest in fora like the East Asia Summit and instruments such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). As Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa remarked in his keynote speech at the conference, ‘the time has come for the region to think of a broad regional arrangement like the TAC which has been in application in Southeast Asia but this time in application in the Asia Pacific in general’. Taking advantage of the American willingness to join into the East Asia Summit (lobbied by Jakarta), for instance, has been important to balance China’s weight in regional groupings, says Anwar. And the more the pivot causes mistrust in the region, the more these groupings are needed. They provide opportunities for Indonesia to play a constructive and sometimes lead role in regional diplomacy, allowing it to offset the risks to its own security by virtue of its strategic location between two oceans and proximity to sites of territorial dispute.

In terms of economics, there’s greater interest by the US to engage with Indonesia. The US intends to double its annual trade with Indonesia between 2012 and 2017. That’s a good thing for Indonesia as its economic growth can be bolstered by foreign investment and partnerships with large American firms. But this also comes at a potential price. Over-reliance on the US as a strong source of investment might be risky should this be compromised in any way. So Indonesia is keen to ensure its other big trade partner, China, is happy. Indonesia has to make sure that drawing close to the US doesn’t allow its economic interests to become a target for Chinese manipulation. In multilateral terms, the situation is more complex. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) process is considered part of the pivot, yet Indonesia isn’t currently a part of negotiations. That’s because the TPP places high demands on member states to reform domestically in areas such as intellectual property protection. And second, Indonesia has other priorities for its diplomatic energy, especially ASEAN fora. As a recent op-ed in The Jakarta Globe observed, joining both the TPP and other ASEAN-related economic groupings (like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) is possible but sinking time and effort into meeting the rigours of the TPP mightn’t be worth it for Indonesia.

Indonesia is much better placed in terms of the Obama administration’s promotion of democratic values as part of Asia Pacific engagement. In 2012, the US agreed to send a high-level delegation to the Bali Democracy Forum, an Indonesian initiative. As the US and Myanmar increase engagement, Indonesia can play an intermediary role of ‘democracy promoter’, as described last week by CSIS Jakarta’s Executive Director, Rizal Sukma. In several speeches delivered this year, President Yudhoyono has expressed his desire for Indonesia’s lessons on internal conflict to assist Myanmar. And Foreign Minister Natalegawa has shown keen interest in the country’s humanitarian issues caused by inter-ethnic violence. Not only does Indonesia gain diplomatic mileage, but encouraging Myanmar’s democratic transformation will in turn support broader plans to develop an ASEAN community by 2015.

Overall, the downsides of the pivot for Indonesia are balanced by increased economic benefits and creative diplomacy opportunities. With an internationalist President and activist Foreign Minister, these suit Indonesia quite well. But there are inherent risks to the country should the pivot prompt greater strategic tension in the region between the US and China, and Indonesia’s still wary. As time passes we’ll see how the new ‘great power relationship’ plays out for Indonesia and the region. But in these first few years of the Obama pivot, the jury’s still out.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user The White House.