US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Jakarta on 29 October to meet with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. The visit comes soon after Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto spent five days in the US discussing regional security, bilateral defence priorities, and the purchase of defence materiel. Following the visit by Pompeo, both sides released a joint statement detailing their discussions on increasing bilateral health and economic co-operation while also touching on regional issues. Pompeo’s call on Indonesia was one stop of a five-nation tour to South and South-East Asia, which included India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Vietnam.
The recent visits of high-ranking officials indicate that Indonesia sits at the forefront of US foreign policy. The primary reason for that is Jakarta’s position as the de facto leader of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its potential to influence the region to take a stronger stance against China. That was made clear in Pompeo’s visit where both sides made comments on the South China Sea issue. Pompeo’s comments on the issue were unsurprisingly more direct than Marsudi’s, when he said:
Our law-abiding nations reject the unlawful claims made by the Chinese Communist Party in the South China Sea, as is clear from Indonesia’s courageous leadership on the subject within ASEAN and at the United Nations… We also welcome the example Indonesia has set with decisive action to safeguard its maritime sovereignty around the Natuna Islands. I’m looking forward to co-operating together in the new ways to ensure maritime security and protect some of the world’s busiest trade routes.
Marsudi, on the other hand, did not mention China directly, rather stating that:
[The] South China Sea should be maintained as a stable and peaceful sea. International law, in particular UNCLOS 1982, must be respected and implemented. Therefore, any claims should be based on universally recognised principle of international law, including UNCLOS 1982.
Regardless of the outcome of the US presidential election, Indonesia will remain a key component of US foreign policy. If there is a change of president, however, there are some aspects of that foreign policy which could also change. From Indonesia’s perspective, apart from the bilateral relationship, there are areas that will be watched closely: Washington’s approach to China and the South China Sea, and the Israel-Palestine conflict.
In the past, Joe Biden advocated for a more co-operative approach to dealing with Beijing. For Jakarta, that would align more closely with its preferred approach to China than the recent escalation of tensions under Trump. More recently, however, Biden appears to have shifted his stance during the election campaign, calling Chinese leader Xi Jinping a ‘thug’, earlier this year. There may be political motives behind that shift, and Biden’s stance could soften if he were elected. If Trump is re-elected, on the other hand, continuing escalations are to be expected and any softening in Washington’s approach would seem highly unlikely. As Washington seems determined to include ASEAN and Indonesia in its strategy of containing China, a more co-operative approach would be more palatable.
While certainly not a regional issue, the Israel-Palestine conflict is one closely watched by the Indonesian Government, especially by Marsudi. As discussed in a previous Strategic Weekly Analysis, Indonesia strongly sympathises with Palestine due to a sense of shared history and people-to-people relations. The Indonesian Government, therefore, has been highly critical of Trump’s approach to the issue, especially after the decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, has been critical of US aid to Israel, as well as the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Given the influence of the pro-Israel lobby groups in the US, however, it is unlikely that a Biden presidency will see a dramatic shift in its foreign policy regarding Israel. That being said, controversial moves such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem will be less likely and could aid in avoiding future hiccups in Washington’s relationship with Indonesia.