By Ronna Nirmala
Washington will enhance its strategic partnership with Jakarta, President Joe Biden said Monday as he met for the first time in person with his Indonesian counterpart, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, amid heightened tensions with China and other challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
The American and Indonesian presidents also talked about freedom of navigation, economic cooperation, the political crisis in Myanmar and the coronavirus pandemic during their meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Scotland, according to statements and transcripts.
Indonesia is a “vital strategic partner” to the U.S., and as a strong proponent of the international rules-based order, “your leadership in the Indo-Pacific is essential,” Biden told Jokowi.
“I’m looking forward to building more on our bilateral relationship because we have so much that we can work together on and so much in common,” Biden said, according to a statement from the White House.
“From addressing the climate crisis to ending the COVID-19 pandemic to upholding freedom of the seas, there’s no global challenge today that doesn’t benefit from Indonesia and the United States working together.”
For his part, Jokowi said Indonesia would become a reliable partner to Washington, as he invited the U.S. to invest in environmentally sustainable sectors in his country.
“I’m looking forward to U.S. support by investing in our energy transition, especially in low-carbon technology,” Jokowi said, according to a statement from his office.
Biden met with Jokowi in Glasgow after the U.S. president interacted with him and other leaders of member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in late October, and after senior American officials had visited the region.
Since coming to power in January, the Biden administration has made a concerted effort to engage more and more with Southeast Asian nations, as Beijing competes with Washington for economic influence in the region.
Indonesia has become China’s largest trading partner. Chinese investments in the archiepelago nation have grown consistently, doubling to almost $4.8 billion in 2020 from $2.4 billion in 2017.
American engagement with Southeast Asia’s largest and most populous country should come as no surprise, said Dinna Prapto Raharja, an international relations analyst at Synergy Policies, a think-tank.
“The U.S. is never going anywhere,” she told BenarNews when asked if the meeting signaled an American comeback to Southeast Asia after a perceived lack of interest in the region under the Trump administration.
“The U.S. has always been involved in the Indo-Pacific because it has an interest in countering China, to appear tough on China.”
Indonesia has always had an independent and active foreign policy – which means that Jakarta does not side with any other powers but participates in the settlement of international issues.
Lately, though, some analysts have questioned Jakarta’s silence on repeated Chinese incursions into Indonesian waters in the South China Sea.
Washington, meanwhile, has been stepping up its freedom of navigation operations in the Indo-Pacific and looking at more intense engagement in the region, according to Ahmad Rizky M. Umar, a political scientist expert and doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland in Australia.
“[Vice President] Kamala Harris and [Minister of Defense] Lloyd Austin have already toured Southeast Asia,” Rizky told BenarNews.
“From what I gather, Biden is directing diplomatic and defense resources to the Indo-Pacific region, which of course also includes Southeast Asia,” he said.
‘True strategic partnership’
The U.S. is not the only foreign power courting Indonesia – France is, too, especially after Paris lost a major contract to sell submarines to Australia, following the announcement of the AUKUS pact. Under AUKUS, the United States and the United Kingdom will share technology for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.
France appears to now be turning to other Indo-Pacific powers – including Indonesia – for “true” relationships.
On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron met with Jokowi on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Rome.
Jokowi welcomed “progress” in defense cooperation between the two countries and expressed hope for stronger strategic ties and investment in the sector.
Macron called Indonesia “more than just a partner” in a social media post in French.
“Together with our partners, we will continue to work so that the Indo-Pacific remains a region of peace and cooperation. In this regard, Indonesia is the main actor, more than just a partner, but a friend,” Macron wrote on Twitter.
The two leaders “decided to work on a true strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific,” the Agence France-Presse news agency reported, citing the French presidential palace.
On AUKUS, Indonesia has expressed concern the trilateral deal would spur an arms race in Southeast Asia.
According to an Indonesian defense ministry official, talks between Jokowi and Macron touched on defense technology transfers and joint production of armaments.
“France is committed to technology transfer and production being carried out in Indonesia,” Dahnil Ahzar Simanjuntak, a spokesman for Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto told BenarNews, without revealing details.
In June in Paris, Prabowo signed a defense cooperation agreement with his French counterpart, Florence Parly.
The deal covers military education and training, science and technology, peacekeeping cooperation, the fight against terrorism and joint production of armaments.
In July, Prabowo said his ministry hoped to acquire advanced fighter-jets including U.S.-made F-15s, Rafales from France, and Sukhoi Su-35s and Su-57s from Russia.
AUKUS may influence Indonesia’s defense procurement in favor of France, according to a recent article published by the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank.
“Indonesia will likely settle on those fighter jets least likely to incense either China or the US, giving France’s Rafale bid an advantage over the others, unless a new contender appears on the horizon,” said the article by Johannes Nugroho, an Indonesian political analyst.
For France, its interest in the Indo-Pacific is about securing its maritime position in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where it possesses territories, including Mayotte, La Réunion, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, according to Rizky, the analyst at the University of Queensland.
“France has its own Indo-Pacific outlook, which in many ways is also concerned with China, especially in the South China Sea,” Rizky said.
US-Indonesia concern on Myanmar
During their meeting on Monday, Jokowi and Biden also discussed the post-coup crisis in Myanmar. They called on the junta to immediately release political prisoners who have been jailed since the military ousted the civilian government on Feb 1.
“They expressed concern about the coup in Burma and agreed the Burmese military must cease violence, release all political prisoners, and provide for a swift return to democracy,” the White House said in a statement.
At least 1,229 people have been killed in a military crackdown on anti-coup protesters, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).