By Ronna Nirmala
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed to strengthen American economic ties with Indonesia and boost infrastructure investment in the country after he arrived in Jakarta on Monday to start his first tour of Southeast Asia as Washington’s top diplomat.
His trip to the region comes on the heels of tours by several other senior American officials, and will include stops in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, as Washington tries to match an increasingly assertive China in its economic and geopolitical influence in the Indo-Pacific.
During talks in Jakarta with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Monday, the two discussed strengthening their “strategic partnership,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said.
“It’s clear the United States is committed to strengthening its partnership with Indonesia, including in the economic sector,” said Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who was scheduled to meet with Blinken on Tuesday.
Retno said Jokowi wanted to make Indonesia part of the global supply chain in the health sector, to which Blinken responded positively.
“Secretary Blinken also expressed his commitment to partner with Indonesia in the area of infrastructure investment,” she told a news conference, without elaborating.
The United States has a fair bit of catching up to do on trade with the member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN). In recent months, the Biden administration has sent U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Commerce Secretary Raimondo to the region.
Total U.S. trade with ASEAN was $135 billion, to China $40 billion. Twenty years later, in 2020, China’s trade with ASEAN was $685 billion to Washington’s $362 billion.
Kishore Mahubani, an author and scholar, noted in an article for Foreign Policy that “submarines are stealthy, but trade is stealthier.”
“Both generate security – the former by deterrence, the latter by interdependence. But the kind of security created by trade lasts longer,” said the distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute.
ASEAN outlook on Indo-Pacific
Still, when the United States and Southeast Asian nations talk, the issue of security is equally important in a region where four ASEAN nations have claims that compete with China’s sweeping ones in the contested South China Sea.
Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the South China Sea dispute, but Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the Natuna Islands.
In Jakarta, Blinken “reiterated the U.S. commitment to ASEAN centrality and our support for the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” during the meeting with Jokowi, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
ASEAN’s outlook on the Indo-Pacific says that member-states must promote freedom, peace, stability and prosperity in the region, through a peaceful settlement of disputes, and through promoting the rule of law and rejecting the use of threats and force.
Blinken is scheduled to give a speech on Washington’s approach to the Indo-Pacific on Tuesday morning in Jakarta.
In a statement released on Sunday, the State Department said Washington and Jakarta were committed to freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region, alluding to China’s growing assertiveness in its claim to most of the South China Sea.
“We support Indonesia’s strong efforts to safeguard its maritime rights and stand up to PRC [People’s Republic of China] aggression in the South China Sea, including in its exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Islands,” the department said.
“The United States is proud to be Indonesia’s largest defense partner in terms of the number of annual exercises and events in which we participate together.”
Earlier this month, an Indonesian lawmaker, Muhammad Farhan, revealed China had demanded that Indonesia stop oil and gas drilling at sea off the Natunas, and that Beijing had alleged in an unprecedented diplomatic note some months ago that these activities were occurring in the South China Sea.
In a separate diplomatic communiqué, China also objected to a joint Indonesia-United States military exercise held in August, according to Farhan.
‘Much needed corrective’
Blinken’s visit “will initiate an increasingly high-level of interaction between Indonesia and the United States in the context of the strategic partnership between the two countries,” I Gede Ngurah Swajaya, director general of the Americas and Europe desk at Indonesia’s foreign ministry, told reporters last week when announcing Blinken’s visit.
Blinken’s deputy, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink, meanwhile, last week characterized Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand being “essential components of the Biden-Harris administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. “
“[Tthe Secretary’s meetings will focus on strengthening the regional security infrastructure in response to PRC bullying in the South China Sea. The Secretary will also discuss unilateral PRC actions in the Mekong River,” Kritenbrink said.
Blinken’s Indonesia visit “is a much-needed corrective to earlier oversights,” Ben Bland, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times.
“So far, Washington has shown limited ambition for boosting the relationship with Indonesia. Despite warnings over Beijing’s growing strategic leverage with Jakarta, it has yet to come up with significant economic counterweights,” Bland wrote, referring to China being a vaccine supplier and funding Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Indonesia.
“Helping Indonesia emerge from the economic and health crisis spurred by the pandemic will win favor with Mr. Joko while reducing his reliance on Beijing. Supporting Indonesia’s recovery also will bolster the argument that democracy – not authoritarianism – can deliver for developing countries in Asia.”
‘Strategic trust’ with Washington and Moscow
Blinken’s Indonesia trip coincided with a visit there by Nikolai Patrushev, the chief of Russia’s Security Council, who also met with Jokowi on Monday.
Patrushev was due to hold “a bilateral security consultation” with Indonesian security minister Mohammad Mahfud MD and sign a cooperation agreement on international information security between Indonesia and Russia, Retno said.
Retno said the United States and Russia were both good partners of Indonesia and Jakarta would would continue to develop “strategic trust”.
“Strategic trust is very important as a foundation for forging mutually beneficial and respectful cooperation,” she said.
“Strategic trust is needed to build a peaceful and prosperous world and Indonesia has a strong commitment to contribute to creating a peaceful, stable and prosperous world.”