America needs Indonesia

When President Biden met his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo in Glasgow last month, he praised Indonesia’s “essential” leadership in the Indo-Pacific region and its “strong commitment” to democratic values.

But the fact that America’s commitment to the world’s third most populous democracy has been warmer than these warm words imply, upsets Indonesia’s position as a leading power in Southeast Asia and a vital counterweight in our geopolitical competition. time between the United States and China.

If the real goal of strategic competition with China is to secure a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” rather than chasing great power competition alone, the United States cannot count on a few fast friends who share its world view. . the scientist. Washington needs to reach out to unaligned, and sometimes conflicting, emerging powers like Indonesia and help them become less dependent on China.

Indonesia, a proud nation of 275 million people, jealously guards its independence in international affairs, knowing full well how devastating foreign interventions can be, from colonial rule to violent coups and US-backed uprisings in the 1950s and 1960s.

Today, Indonesia maintains close relations with rivals of the United States, Russia and Iran. And there is its growing relationship with China. Under President Joko, better known as Jokowi, China became one of Indonesia’s biggest investors, spending billions of dollars on new roads, power stations and a high-speed railway. Indonesia has also supplied about 80 percent of COVID-19 vaccines.

While Indonesia cooperates with the United States on military, counterterrorism and development programs, it also fears new U.S. security initiatives in the region.

Now is the time for Washington and its allies to court Indonesia. The goal should not be to distance Indonesia from China, but to support Joko’s economic and social development plans and help the country become an alternative pole of power to challenge the emerging sense in Asia that only China holds the keys to the region’s future. .

But closer ties with China do not mean that Joko chooses sides in the great power competition. Instead, he approaches foreign policy with the practicality of the furniture factory owner and mayor he used to be, willing to work with anyone who can help him achieve his primary goals, such as boosting the economy.

Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, the most populous Muslim-majority country, and the largest archipelago country in the world – generating interest in Indonesia generally requires a list of superlatives.

Between domestic issues and a long list of foreign policy challenges to address, Indonesia appears to be falling back off the agenda once again, even as the Biden administration kicks off in Southeast Asia.

The scheduled visit to Jakarta this week by Foreign Minister Anthony Blinken is a much-needed correction to previous projections. But the trip does build a relationship, especially when Chinese ministers have more regular face-to-face contacts with their Indonesian counterparts. The Biden administration should use this visit to launch an ongoing charm offensive to bring the world’s third largest democracy closer.

Like Mr. Biden, Mr. Joko is an actor, not a thinker. Therefore, the United States should focus on areas of practical cooperation with Indonesia, such as trade and investment, financing Jakarta’s plans to reduce deforestation and coal power, and increasing support for the coronavirus vaccination campaign. -19 from Indonesia.

Helping Indonesia get out of the economic and health crisis caused by the pandemic will have Joko’s support and reduce its dependence on Beijing. Supporting Indonesia’s recovery will also bolster the argument that democracy, not authoritarianism, can be beneficial to developing countries in Asia. As the largest economy in Southeast Asia, Indonesia also deserves special attention.

A stronger, richer, and democratic Indonesia will not always align with the United States, but it will add a crucial counterweight to China in Asia.

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