The Most Important Country That Washington Is Apt to Get Wrong – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

For the latest Pivotal States event, a new series that examines alternative U.S. foreign policy approaches to the world’s key nations, American Statecraft Program director Christopher S. Chivvis was joined by two experts to discuss Washington’s strategic alternatives in its relations with Indonesia. Dewi Fortuna Anwar is a research professor at the National Research and Innovation Agency in Jakarta and a former senior advisor to the Indonesian president and vice president. Scot Marciel is a former U.S. ambassador to both Indonesia and ASEAN.

This Q & A was adapted from a transcript of the event and has been edited and condensed for clarity. An unedited transcript is available here. For past episodes from our series, click here.

Chris Chivvis: Why does Indonesia matter to the United States?

Scot Marciel: Indonesia has always been, since independence, very nonaligned. From my perspective, the U.S. strategic interest is not in trying to win over Indonesia in some way to be aligned with the United States. That’s just not going to happen. But rather our interest is in Indonesia continuing to be successful, stable, peaceful, democratic, more prosperous, and playing a constructive role in the region.

And as much as possible, we’d like Indonesia to work with us on regional diplomacy, economics, trade and investment, and climate change, because Indonesia is a huge player in the environment.

I think the one area of biggest weakness is in the economy. The trade-investment relationship has not performed nearly as well as I think it could, so I hope that that will be a priority going forward.

Chris Chivvis: Dewi, I’m interested in your thoughts about how U.S. policy has been viewed in Jakarta.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar: The U.S. interest in Southeast Asia and Indonesia is geopolitics—the center of major power rivalry.

The shadow of history looms large in the region, and Indonesia’s relations with the United States have always been a bit difficult. [The two had a] love-and-hate relationship throughout the ’50s, when the U.S. tried to prevent Indonesia from leaning too close to communist countries. [President] Sukarno told the U.S. to go to hell with its aid, because of domestic politics. Indonesia entered into a near-alliance with China [before] becoming anti-China and closer to the United States.

From where I sit, there’s a sense of déjà vu. Indonesia is trying to position itself to ensure its strategic autonomy while trying to engage. It’s trying to take advantage of what China has to offer in terms of investment, but it would not be comfortable with becoming too dependent on any one country. But at the same time, it is also very uncomfortable with what China is doing, particularly in the South China Sea, which also impinges on Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. Indonesia—like other many countries in the region—is hedging, taking advantage, maximizing benefits, but mitigating risks in the face of China’s rise.

Indonesia being a Muslim-majority country [also] matters a lot. How Jakarta perceives the U.S. policy is not just about what the U.S. does toward Indonesia or the region, but also what the U.S. does globally, particularly toward Muslim countries. The Israeli-Palestinian problem remains a stumbling block of warm relations between Jakarta and Washington. Indonesia opposed the unilateral invasion of Iraq. And it’s always been very critical that the war on terror was considered to be more a war against Muslims, and that affects Indonesia as a whole. Whatever the U.S. does in the Middle East or in Afghanistan, that also affects Indonesia directly. And during the war on terror, Southeast Asia was the most important battlefront after the Middle East when countering extremism. So there are a lot of complex issues in how Jakarta perceives Washington.

Chris Chivvis: There seems to be a risk of Indonesia drifting more and more into China’s orbit. Is this something that American policymakers need to guard against?

Scot Marciel: I’m not too worried about Indonesia drifting into anyone’s orbit. Indonesia is really proudly independent. It also is far enough away from China and has the size, population, and economy to stand up for itself and resist any excessive gravitational pull. That doesn’t mean that Indonesia won’t work closely with China on things like infrastructure. It absolutely will. But I’m not really worried about Indonesia drifting into the Chinese orbit.

From a U.S. perspective, even if we were worried about that, [politicians should] not go to Indonesia and say “China’s bad.” It’s not a helpful approach. We should be focused on how we can build a relationship with Indonesia [and] the rest of Southeast Asia. None of these countries want to be vassal states of anyone else. They all want their strategic autonomy, so we need to have some confidence and trust in them and focus instead on being a good partner.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar: Most Indonesian people are less concerned about geopolitics. They’re more concerned about their own economic livelihood. And China has always been a problem. Relations with China is not just a foreign policy issue for Indonesia—it’s always been part of domestic politics.

The largest overseas Chinese [contingent] are in Southeast Asia, and they are very influential economically. During the colonial periods, they were used as middlemen, as the class that extracted taxes and controlled the trade. So they often became targets. They have suffered massacres and a lot of unpleasantness throughout the centuries. China was accused of supporting the Communist Party in Indonesia, which led to the death of several generals [and] triggered the fall of the Sukarno government and the rise of the very anticommunist military regime. Everything to do with China was totally forbidden throughout the Suharto period. Indonesia froze diplomatic relations with China. It didn’t even allow Chinese scripts on catsup bottles [or in magazines]. Indonesia only normalized relations with China in 1990.

Now, there are concerns about [China’s] impact on Indonesian workers. There’s a lot of criticism, for example, that Chinese investment will bring not just white-collar workers but also blue-collar workers. With investment from Europe, the United States, or Japan, it doesn’t make sense for them to bring their own blue-collar workers—it’s too expensive. They would only bring the higher-level [workers], and they would train local people to be mid-level managers, and then all the workers would be local. But the Chinese companies do not operate in that way.

Chris Chivvis: Is President Joe Biden’s decision not to attend the ASEAN Summit a sign of America’s lack of interest in Southeast Asia?

Scot Marciel: I’m someone who’s always argued very strongly that U.S. presidents should attend these summits. I think it’s really important to show up consistently. [But] Biden and his team have engaged with Southeast Asia very substantively and consistently since they took office. And Biden’s going to Vietnam, which is an ASEAN member, instead of going to Indonesia. Arguably, he could’ve gone to both, but then with the G20 Summit in between, it would’ve been a very long trip and not really viable.  Personally, I wish he were going, but I think you see very steady and consistent and substantive U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia during this administration, and I think that helps a lot. But people will still be disappointed that he sent the vice president.

Another point is [Chinese President] Xi Jinping has sent his deputy every year, and nobody says anything about that. Part of that is because China is clearly engaged in the region all the time, so people don’t doubt China’s interest.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar: Since I’m no longer in government, I can be as blunt as I like, and frankly, I’m very disappointed.

The key word is reliability—being a reliable partner. Through [former president Donald] Trump’s administration, ASEAN was clearly not considered that important, because the United States did not even appoint an ambassador to ASEAN. Trump attended the summit once. So there was a huge expectation when Biden [was elected] that the U.S. is going to be engaged again. In the first year, [engagement] went up, and people are quite happy, but they are still waiting for [more].

Chris Chivvis:  Why does ASEAN matter?

Scot Marciel: ASEAN is not this bold, incredibly dynamic international organization—not that there’s a lot of bold, dynamic international organizations to begin with. It’s cautious. It’s consensus-based. The meetings themselves are, frankly, often rather dull, although there’s a lot of side meetings that are very important.

But to me, the main thing about ASEAN is it’s really important for the ten member countries that together represent almost 700 million people and collectively would be the world’s fifth-largest economy. It has done its primary job very well, which is keeping peace among those countries. [That’s] very much in America’s interest.

We used to say, “It’s a ten for one.” You go to one place and you’re paying respect to an institution that’s important to all ten countries, and that helps your relationship with all those ten countries. Not going is seen as somewhat dismissive.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar: Biden has reiterated over and over again that ASEAN is at the heart of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy because the ASEAN region is really geographically at the heart of the Indo-Pacific, and it is the primary convener of all of the powers around the region. So [he says], on the one hand, that ASEAN is at the center of the U.S. strategy, but then [he’s] missing this very important summit. I find it a bit strange.

View the whole event in the player below, or watch it on YouTube.

Previously in Pivotal States:

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