The Latest on Southeast Asia: August 31, 2023

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of Indonesia spent the week of August 20 on a trip to four African countries—South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Kenya—where he aimed to forge new partnerships and expand Indonesia’s economic influence. He sought new markets for pharmaceutical products and palm oil; exports of the latter are increasingly restricted in the European Union due to concerns over deforestation, forcing Jakarta to seek alternatives. Jokowi also looked to forge new partnerships on critical minerals as his government hopes to make Indonesia a hub for electric vehicle production. And he touted the achievements of Indonesia’s preferential trade agreement with Mozambique, expressing interest in similar pacts with Kenya and Tanzania.

Jokowi ended the trip by attending the BRICS summit in South Africa on August 24 alongside counterparts from roughly 60 countries. The BRICS formally expanded by inviting Argentina, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudia Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates to join. But Indonesia, an obvious candidate due to its size and influence, was not among them. Jokowi said afterward he was interested in membership but would not “rush into it.” The decision is not surprising. Decades after the 1955 Bandung Conference, non-alignment remains a core tenet of Indonesia’s foreign policy. And BRICS membership would have been seen in some circles as alignment with China (wrongly perhaps, given that India is also a major player in the grouping).

Indonesia’s commitment to a free and active foreign policy was highlighted by the fact that while President Jokowi was in Africa, his Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto was in Washington to advance the growing U.S.-Indonesia security partnership. After their meeting at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin highlighted U.S. support for Indonesian military modernization, especially in the face of challenges in the South China Sea, and reiterated their shared opposition to China’s nine-dash line claim. Prabowo also signed an agreement with Lockheed Martin for 24 transport helicopters. A week later, Indonesian and U.S. armed forces kicked off their largest annual joint military exercise, Super Garuda Shield. The joint drills, which include participants from Australia, France, Japan, Singapore, and the United Kingdom, along with observers from a dozen countries, run through September 13.

Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Japhet Quitzon is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative