A Renewed Focus on Indonesia-U.S. Relations

In July 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was the first member of President Joe Biden's cabinet to visit Southeast Asia. He went to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines but did not stop by Indonesia. A month later, Vice President Kamala Harris, during her first trip to the region in this role, also visited Singapore and Vietnam without stopping in Indonesia. This left Jakarta in the cold and led some to question whether Indonesia had become less important in U.S. foreign policy. However, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Indonesia in December 2021 reaffirmed the importance of the two countries’ strategic partnership.

As the world’s third-largest democracy, fourth-most-populous nation, largest Muslim-majority country, and home to a third of the world’s rainforests, Indonesia is an important partner of the United States. The two counties share a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, including a commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight. Indonesia played a leading role in developing and now in implementing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Given the United States’ capacity and Indonesia’s potential, together, they can achieve much in addressing a wide range of issues from economic development to human rights and climate change.

In 2019, the United States was Indonesia’s second-largest market, valued at $17.874 billion, and the fifth-largest exporter at $9.319 billion. Trade figures from January to October 2021 reached $29.6 billion, a 33.9 percent increase from the same period last year. In 2020, U.S. investment in Indonesia reached $749.7 million, which increased by 73 percent to $1.3 billion within the first nine months of 2021. Regarding security cooperation, the United States is Indonesia’s largest defense partner in terms of the number of annual exercises and events. The two countries’ cooperation in counterterrorism and in countering violent extremism is also an important component of their security cooperation.

Under the Obama administration, Indonesia-U.S. relations were in a golden era. The relationship was facilitated by the Indonesian government’s vision of becoming a global maritime fulcrum and the United States’ rebalance to Asia. President Barack Obama, who lived in Jakarta for several years with his mother, stepfather, and half sister, was another factor in strengthening Indonesia-U.S. relations. It is said that there is no U.S. president in history who understood Indonesia and Indonesia's importance better than Obama.

In 2010, during his state visit to Indonesia, President Obama and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed the Indonesia-U.S. comprehensive partnership, “opening a new era of bilateral relations” between the two countries. The partnership was founded on the shared values of democracy, freedom, pluralism, tolerance, and respect for human rights. It would advance Indonesia-U.S. cooperation on education, environment, security, science and technology, trade and investment, democracy, human rights, health, energy, food, and entrepreneurship.

In 2015, during his visit to the United States, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and President Obama upgraded their countries’ partnership to a strategic partnership to expand cooperation on shared strategic interests. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on maritime cooperation and an MoU concerning cooperation on energy. The Indonesian Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense also issued a Joint Statement on Comprehensive Defense Cooperation. The two countries further established an annual Ministerial Strategic Dialogue, led by the U.S. secretary of state and the Indonesian foreign minister. The 2015 National Security Strategy of the United States highlighted U.S. partnerships with Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. Indonesia-U.S. ties were stronger than ever.

The Trump presidency witnessed Washington’s dwindling diplomatic and political capital in the Indo-Pacific. Indonesia, like other countries in Southeast Asia, felt ignored by the United States, and Indonesia-U.S. relations entered a lull. Despite mentions of Indonesia in the 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2019 Indo-Pacific Report, President Donald Trump did not visit Indonesia during his term. He also missed out on all four East Asia Summits, where he could have met Indonesian leaders. From the Indonesian side, Jakarta was not comfortable with the Trump administration’s anti-China approach. For Indonesian leaders, getting too close to Trump was seen as a political liability, which explains why Indonesian president Jokowi never visited Trump at the White House. As a result, there were no major agreements between the two countries during this period.

The Biden administration is now undertaking steps to reverse course, repair the damage, and win back allies and partners. During Biden’s first year in office, the administration sent Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to visit Jakarta. As Indonesia presides over the G20 in 2022, Blinken's visit in December 2021 brought a renewed focus to Indonesia-U.S. relations.

The United States and Indonesia are taking steps to deepen and strengthen their cooperation in key areas that are in line with the 2015 strategic partnership and the Indo-Pacific economic framework. As with all countries in the world, cooperation on how to address the health dimension and the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic will be at the top of the agenda. Beyond this, Indonesia and the United States can further cooperate on the priorities of Indonesia’s G20 2022 presidency, including global health architecture, sustainable energy transition, and digital transformation. The two countries can also focus on implementing the three MoUs on maritime cooperation, the Peace Corps, and education signed during Secretary Blinken’s visit in December 2021. The two sides are collaborating in ways that are not only bilateral, but increasingly regional and notably global.

In addition to a renewed focus, Indonesia-U.S. cooperation is expected to be more effective because of the Biden administration’s less confrontational approach toward China. On February 4, 2021, President Biden said his administration was “ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so,” while confronting China’s economic abuses, coercive action, and attacks on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance. In a speech delivered on March 3, 2021, Secretary of State Blinken said the U.S. relationship with China would be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.”  Officials of the Biden administration also increasingly use the phrase “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific.” ASEAN uses the word “inclusive” in its Outlook on the Indo-Pacific as a code word for keeping the door open for China. This approach makes not only Indonesia but also other Southeast Asian countries more comfortable in working with the United States.

Bich T. Tran is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Bich Tran
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program