“Indonesia between Two Major Powers: US Defense Secretary, Mattis’ Visit” by Leo Suryadinata

2018/13, 15 February 2018 

On 22-24 January 2018, US secretary of defense Jim Mattis visited Indonesia. This was the second US leader from the Trump Administration to visit Jakarta after Vice-President Mike Pence. In fact, before visiting Jakarta, Mattis had delivered a speech at the Johns Hopkins University, unveiling the shift in US defense priorities. He declared that the primary focus of U.S. national security today is not terrorism, “but great power competition”. The Mattis visit to Indonesia should be seen in this context.


Mattis met Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal and Security Affairs Wiranto, and Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu. As Mattis’ major agenda was security, his meeting with Ryamizard has been closely watched. After the closed door meeting, Mattis was reported to have stated to the press that the U.S. was keen to participate in the trilateral joint patrol between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in the South China Sea. This was aimed at preventing crimes. However, he also said that the US was still waiting for the invitation from the three countries to jointly patrol the South China Sea which is well known for its great economic potential, which was also the reason for territorial dispute in the region. He further stated that Indonesia plays an important role in ASEAN and offered US help to enhance regional security. Later Mattis noted that the U.S. was committed to promote the Indo Pacific concept which involved the cooperation in diplomacy, economy and security in the region.

Ryamizard also met the press to express his views on his meeting with Mattis, his US defense counterpart. Ryamizard noted that Mattis has addressed various issues at their meeting, namely the North Korea issue, the Rohingya issue, South China Sea and the trilateral cooperation. Ryamizard stated that on the North Korea issue, Indonesia would work with the UN to pressurize North Korea to comply with the UN resolutions. On Rohingya, both Jakarta and Washington shared the same view that if the Rohingya issue has not resolved soon, it would give rise to the “seeds of terrorism.”  Regarding the South China Sea issue, Ryamizard admitted that there was tension but it has now declined. On the American offer to join the trilateral patrol in the area he welcomed this as the US would be able to provide advanced equipment. However, this may not be reflective of the Jokowi administration. Ryamizard did not mention anything on the Indo Pacific concept.

The Indo Pacific concept was discussed between Foreign Minister Retno and Mattis. Retno was reported to have stated that Indonesia would only welcome the Indo Pacific Concept (Indonesian terms: Konsep Arsitektur Indo-Pasifik) if it was “based on the principle of openness, spirit of cooperation and habit of dialogues”.  In other words, at the moment, since the concept did not have the above characteristics, Jakarta was not interested. The Concept was first proposed by Japanese PM Shinzo Abe to Jokowi during his 2016 visit, but did not elicit a response from Indonesia as it was seen to be a counter to China’s Bell and Road Initiative (BRI). In November last year, President Donald Trump had also advocated this during his visit to Asia.

On the 9 February 2018, Retno led a delegation to Beijing. The visit, according to her, was to repay the 2014 visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and to hold a Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation meeting. (The last meeting took place six years ago). It was obvious that Retno’s visit to Beijing was also related to Mattis’s visit to Jakarta. Retno was not only welcomed by her Chinese counterpart but also received by Premier Li Keqiang. Retno was quoted in the press that she discussed bilateral relations as well as the regional and global situation with her Chinese counterpart. She also noted that Indonesia-China relations are enhancing from year to year, “but what we need to make sure is that the relations should bring mutual benefit and based on mutual respect”.

Indonesia under Jokowi is considered by both US and China as an important country in the region. Both Major Powers want to draw Indonesia to their side even as Indonesia tries to conduct its “active and independent” foreign policy. Indonesia has avoided an alliance with the US/Japan and domination by China. In recent years, however, as the US under Trump’s administration is seen to be weak and withdrawing from Asia, Jokowi’s Indonesia is relying more heavily on China in trade, loan, and investment.

Dr Leo Suryadinata is Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.



The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.