“Lukewarm Response from Indonesia on Pence’s Visit” by Leo Suryadinata

2017/20, 2 May 2017

US Vice-President Mike Pence’s visit to Indonesia from 20-21 April 2017 was an opportunity for the US to reassure Southeast Asians that the Trump Administration has not forgotten the region. It also afforded the opportunity for the new administration to get a first-hand account on how the region’s largest country views the US.  It was a learning experience for the US as much as it was for Indonesia.

Although not explicitly mentioned during the visit, China was not far from Pence’s mind, not least because of Beijing’s pivotal role in reining in an increasing unpredictable and aggressive Pyongyang regime. The latter had just begun another round of destabilizing sabre-rattling with its missile tests. At the same time, the Vice-President would no doubt be conscious of China’s growing influence at the expense of US’ standing in Indonesia and the wider Southeast Asian region. This visit was essentially to lay down the marker that even with the rollback of the rebalance strategy, the US would remain engaged in the region.

The choice of Indonesia as the Trump Administration’s first diplomatic foray into Southeast Asia – prior to Pence’s visit, no Cabinet level official had visited the region – is noteworthy.  Of the four countries in Pence’s itinerary, three were formal US allies (Australia, Japan and South Korea). Indonesia is the only outlier. In addition, Pence’s bypassing of the Philippines and Thailand – US’ only security treaty allies in Southeast Asia – in favour of Indonesia may also speak to Washington’s ambition to draw Indonesia closer to the US.

The US will be disappointed if it expects Indonesia to help check China’s advances in the region.  Indonesia with its long and proud tradition of “bebas aktif” (free and active) would be reluctant to get entangled with major power politics.  Indonesia President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo remains focused on his own brand of economic nationalism that would not be unfamiliar to Pence.  In Jokowi’s version of “Indonesia first,” the president would do business with any country – big or small – under terms beneficial to Indonesia. Pence’s visit bearing US$10 billion worth of investments in the energy and technology sectors would be welcomed, as would the agreement to re-evaluate their bilateral trade relations. However, the cloud of Trump’s hunt for “unfair trade practices” must weigh heavily on Jokowi as Indonesia ran a US$8.3 billion trade surplus with the US last year.

Overall, the both sides could chalk up the visit a success. The local press coverage was largely positive. Major dailies such as Kompas and The Jakarta Post were effusive with the accolade of Indonesia receiving the first and most senior US official to visit the region to date.  Pence’s visit to the Istiqlal mosque, Indonesia’s largest, scored the US some goodwill.  The Islamic-oriented newspaper Republika noted that Pence’s positive remarks on Indonesia’s practice of moderate Islam was a mark of respect to more than 200 million of Indonesian Muslims.  All in all, when the euphoria of the visit dies down, both sides will recognise that not much has changed.  But in the new world of Trump, the status quo is as good as a win.
Leo Suryadinata is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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