Indonesian and US Defence Ministers Meet

21 October 2020 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto recently concluded a five-day visit to the United States, from 15-19 October. According to a joint statement from that visit, Prabowo met with his US counterpart and discussed regional security, bilateral defence priorities, and defence acquisitions. While of value to both countries, the meeting did lack a significant outcome, with only the signing of a memorandum of intent regarding repatriation efforts for the remains of US personnel who disappeared in Indonesia during World War II.

Comment

While there was little in terms of direct outcomes from the meeting, it does still bear significance for both sides. Following his appointment in October 2019, Prabowo was quickly welcomed by China, visiting two months later in December. He also visited Russia twice this year, in January and June. The US, on the other hand, has been slow to welcome Prabowo, having only just recently lifted a ban on entering the US due to alleged human rights violations. From a pragmatic perspective, that ban was a serious impediment to US foreign policy regarding Indonesia. Visits between Prabowo and his Chinese and Russian counterparts no doubt cause concern among US officials.

Regarding China, US officials are worried about any semblance of influence that Beijing may hold over Jakarta. The US likely sees Indonesia as a vital part of its strategy to contain China’s push into the South China Sea and, as the most influential power in South-East Asia, an important ally in pushing against China’s influence in that region. An added element to the significance of the visit is the upcoming US presidential election. As noted by David Engel, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, there are concerns that a Biden Administration would face pressure to restore the travel ban placed on Prabowo. Holding a meeting before the election could help to ward off that possibility and cement Prabowo’s position among US officials as necessary figure to interact with.

Concerning Russia, the US does not want to lose out on potential defence materiel contracts, such as the potential sale of F-16 Fighting Falcon multi-role fighter jets, which Indonesia is weighing up against Russia’s Sukhoi Su-35s. The near future could see Indonesia gear up to become a major market for large defence purchases as it pushes to modernise its defence capabilities by 2024 under the Minimum Essential Force goals and expands its military budget to do so. That said, Indonesia’s tendency to push for technology sharing in those contracts could exclude the US as a potential source, as US companies are typically reluctant to include such terms in their contracts.

From Indonesia’s perspective, the meeting had much less at stake. Rather than being a pivot to the US, or a message to China, the meeting was simply a part of Indonesia’s ongoing balancing act. In regard to China and the South China Sea, Indonesia does not want to head a confrontational approach or follow the lead of the US. Instead, Indonesia would rather go down a route of maintaining friendships and continuing dialogue. Now that signs of resistance to China’s “wolf-warrior diplomacy” are beginning to emerge, Indonesia may be better off waiting to see if China gets pressured to pull back on its aggressive stance in the region. In terms of Russia and the US, it matters little to Indonesia where it sources defence materiel from, as shown in the past, having frequently made purchases from a variety of sellers. Indonesia is wise to maintain an advantageous bargaining position by entertaining deals from both sides, which could put it in a stronger position to push for technology-sharing arrangements as it moves to increase the capabilities of its domestic defence industries.

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