US-Indonesia Relations Need A Reboot – Analysis


By Alexander R Arifianto and Yohanes Sulaiman*

Since gaining independence in 1945, Indonesia has subscribed to the principle of a ‘free and active’ (bebas aktif) foreign policy, which emphasises neutrality and non-alignment. Despite this approach to great power rivalry, Indonesia has enjoyed good bilateral relations with the United States from the time Washington formally recognised Indonesia’s independence in 1949.

The US–Indonesia relationship weathered several periods of tension. The first was during the 1950s. Fearing that the Communist Party would take over Indonesia without any action from the Indonesian government, the United States decided to support the PRRI/Permesta rebellion of 1958.

The relationship deteriorated further after a major diplomatic spat between Indonesia and Malaya over the status of Sabah and Sarawak. The spat led to military confrontation between 1963 and 1966. It was only after Suharto deposed President Sukarno in the aftermath of the 30 September Movement that the US–Indonesia relationship improved, and the two nations developed security and economic cooperation.

Indonesia and the United States signed the US–Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership under the Obama administration in 2010. This agreement became an umbrella for joint partnerships in areas such as higher education and climate change — but went dormant when the Trump administration assumed office in 2017. On 31 May 2021, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia as the first high ranking official of the Biden administration to pay an official visit to the country. At the meeting, leaders discussed potential new initiatives to renew the US–Indonesia partnership and address regional challenges.

Despite these steps, Indonesia feels increasingly uneasy about US foreign policy. While Indonesia is concerned with the rise of China and its growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, it did not support the Trump administration’s aggressive foreign policy towards China, which seems set to continue under US President Joe Biden.

Indonesia is also uncomfortable with the new administration’s intention to expand the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) — a regional security partnership between the United States, Australia, India and Japan. The Quad puts greater emphasis on security over other forms of cooperation, such as economics and public health. Public health is a priority for ASEAN members as the region struggles with the impacts of COVID-19.

US attention on the Quad could result in declining autonomy for ASEAN as the leading regional security institution in Southeast Asia, which would be detrimental to Indonesia’s interest in keeping the region free from outside interference. Threats to Indonesia’s national unity — such as the PRRI/Permesta rebellion that received covert assistance from the Eisenhower administration, perceptions of Chinese involvement in the 30 September Movement, and Australian involvement in East Timor secession — are still raw in Indonesia’s memory.

Indonesia is concerned with the Biden administration’s agenda to centre the promotion of democracy and human rights in US foreign policy. These may once again become conditions of US security and economic assistance — as they were during the Clinton and Obama presidencies. Indonesia is particularly worried about potential Western intervention in Papua — its easternmost province — where local pro-independence activists have engaged in a secessionist campaign since it was officially declared part of Indonesia in 1969.

This is not a small issue. It motivated Indonesia’s vote against the adoption of a UN resolution on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) — along with only 14 other nations — in May 2021, fearing that the resolution would be used as a backdoor to justify interventions in Indonesia.

In a time of rising geopolitical tension in Southeast Asia, US–Indonesia bilateral relations are more important than ever. But questions about the US agenda — including how it intends to promote democracy and human rights — and the seriousness with which it approaches engagements with Indonesia are stumbling blocks to further cooperation between the two nations.

To overcome such challenges, Washington and Jakarta must find new opportunities for cooperation while being mindful of Indonesia’s ‘free and active’ foreign policy and fear of foreign interference.

The Biden administration needs to keep engaging Indonesia and push for more economic and security cooperation in military and non-military areas. It needs to ramp up officer exchange programs, adding more opportunities for Indonesian officers to broaden their worldview.

Washington needs to reassure Jakarta that it values Indonesia’s unity, while also pushing Indonesia to take a more assertive posture in ASEAN, like it has shown during the ongoing Myanmar crisis. Ensuring Indonesia and ASEAN remain strong — to counterbalance China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia — is a core US interest.

*About the authors:

  • Alexander R Arifianto is a Research Fellow with the Indonesia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
  • Yohanes Sulaiman is a Lecturer in the School of Government at Jenderal Achmad Yani University, Bandung, Indonesia.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

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