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Indonesia: Why the US Needs to Pay Closer Attention

The United States needs to treat the unassuming Indonesian President Widodo with the attention due to his country.

October 24, 2015

The United States needs to treat the unassuming Indonesian President Widodo with the attention due to his country.

Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Seattle, Washington, DC, and New York generated the usual acreage of reporting and commentary in American media.

But will anyone take notice of Indonesian President Joko Widodo when he visits Washington and Silicon Valley next week? One has to wonder.

For sure, foreign presidential visits to the United States come thick and fast this time of year. But are U.S. politicians, policy makers and media so myopic that they fail to give due importance to the largest nation in Southeast Asia?

Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country with a secular constitution and a democratic political process.

It is the world’s largest archipelagic country — within which are some of the world’s most important straits, Melaka, Makassar, Sunda — all of these easily choked arteries of global commerce for 2,000 years.

This nation of 250 million is the heartland of a larger Malay world that includes the Philippines and Malaysia — both countries subject to China’s expansionist claims in the South China Sea, claims that overlap with the gas fields off Indonesia’s Natuna islands.

Refocusing on Asia – really?

Taking Indonesia seriously is at least as logical and consequential as the long-accepted imperative to take Japan seriously.

The United States claims to be refocusing on Asia. Some progress has been evident, including in the naval presence and the recent signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership accord.

Links with India have improved notably since Narendra Modi became prime minister. Yet Indonesia gets scant attention, despite its key strategic and political position.

This is despite Widodo’s willingness to turn back the economic nationalists in his own administration, which is not easy given the de-centralization of power in Indonesia.

Widodo has indicated that Indonesia could join the TPP in two years. He has also agreed upon a long-argued new deal with U.S.-owned Freeport McMoran for a $16 billion investment in its existing gold and copper mine in Papua.

This is a big number by any measure. He has made other efforts to remove nationalist obstacles to foreign investment, many of which are in place less for ideological reasons than as rewards for rent-seeking politicians and bureaucrats.

If you know anything about Indonesia’s history as an independent nation, you would know that these are not small accomplishments.

They are signals that Indonesia — for all its nationalism and determination to appear neutral in big-power conflicts, tropes that date to the vigorously anti-American stance Sukarno eventually adopted — wants American attention. But he seems unlikely to get it.

Lack of attention to Indonesia

The Chinese president’s U.S. tour was a reminder that discourses about Asia in the West are completely dominated by academics and assorted pundits.

These pundits claim expertise on China and forget the Southeast Asian neighbors who share a population of 600 million. In their universe, the United States and China are the only two countries that matter — the rival hegemons for whom the other nations are simply pawns.

This is perhaps not surprising, given the widespread neglect of Southeast Asian studies in Western universities.

In the UK, for example, Cambridge University’s Asian studies faculty has 12 people devoted to China studies and none to Southeast Asia, let alone the wider Malay world and its 400 million people. Things aren’t too different in America.

Then there’s Australia, which is highly dependent on commodity exports to China. Thus, the conversation, too, tilts in favor of China.

The view is that as China is on its way up and United States on its way down, sooner or later America’s allies will fall away and China will assume its supposedly natural position as the hegemon of Asia.

This argument combines a weak grasp of Asian history with apparent contempt for the interests of other Asian states.

Case in point. Widodo recently emphasized the fact that Indonesia is a maritime nation that must defend its waters, then proceeded to capture and destroy foreign vessels fishing illegally while spending to beef up a very tiny navy.

In consequence, he was accused of unseemly nationalism by Australia. Yet, it is this sense of national and broader Malay identity in Indonesia, as in the Philippines, that the United States should encourage. Taking Widodo and his country more seriously during his imminent state visit is one way to do that.

Learning from history

History matters, too, and it is not on China’s side — its absurd claims over the South China Sea notwithstanding.

Even in days when they were thinly populated, the islands of Southeast Asia and their skilled seamen pioneered much global commerce, settling Madagascar and trading across the Indian Ocean to Arabia and the Horn of Africa.

Trading states whose names are no longer familiar — Aceh, Makassar, Majapahit, Banten, Sri Vijaya — were crucial in East-West trade.

China was in fact a very latecomer to maritime trade, long after Indonesians, Indians and Arabs. Chinese maritime trade occurred mostly through ethnic Chinese who had settled overseas in search of business opportunities unavailable at home.

The main expansion of the ethnic Chinese role in the region came centuries after Indian and other influences. It reached its peak when Southeast Asia was under European colonial rule: China was overpopulated and Southeast Asia was not.

Times have changed and the demographics have reversed. Today, China is aging, polluted and its institutionalized racism has exposed its land frontiers, notably Xinjiang and Tibet, to sustained turmoil.

China’s supposed past domination of the maritime region via “tributary” states is largely a myth peddled by China experts in the West who piously believe annals written long ago to please Chinese emperors.

Tributes were mostly a matter of trade interests on the Southeast Asian side and empty but grandiose “submissions” to appeal to imperial vanity.

The one brief occasion when China sought to impose itself on the maritime zone to the south was in the early 15th century. The voyages of Zheng He’s heavily militarized fleets around the South China Sea and Indian Ocean achieved “awe” but little else.

The West mostly swallows Beijing’s untrue claim that Zheng He was a peace-loving envoy, but almost none remember that China’s only attempt to enforce its claimed suzerainty over island Southeast Asia ended with the humiliation of Kublai Khan’s forces in Java in 1293.

Not all about China

The relative decline of the United States doesn’t mean China replaces it. It means that China faces not the ring of states lined up in a faltering American attempt to stem Chinese influence — the current Chinese theory of encirclement — but the independent states of varying degrees of power.

These may not love each other, but they have no interest in being any more subservient to China than did their predecessors.

This lack of understanding of history may explain how, at the urging of a foreign ministry stuffed with China experts, UK humiliated itself with the extraordinary political and economic kowtow to Xi Jinping, just witnessed in London. That drew derision even in Berlin and Paris.

Joko Widodo matters to the United States not just because Indonesia has economic, let alone military power, but also because it has long rewarded investors more generously than China.

The United States needs to treat the unassuming Widodo with the attention due to his country.

It is vital to U.S. interests in Asia, not to mention the wider issues of sustaining pluralism and tolerance in a mostly Muslim nation. Indonesia has many reasons to distrust China and is afflicted neither by a rapidly aging population, nor unnatural gender imbalances, nor an excessive birth rate.

Indonesia still needs to be flattered other than by Beijing bearing multi-billion dollar Trojan horse gifts or ethnic Chinese businesses with no sense of loyalty to their adopted country and with commercial interests in the mainland to protect.

If the United States wishes to remain a global power, it must work a lot harder at relations with the world’s fourth most populous nation — and one that shares far more with it than does Leninist/Confucian/racist/expansionist China.


Will anyone take notice of Indonesian President Joko Widodo when he visits the US next week?

Discourse about Asia in the West is completely dominated by academics and assorted pundits.

There is a widespread neglect of Southeast Asian studies in Western universities.

Historically, China was a latecomer to maritime trade, long after Indonesians, Indians and Arabs.