Joe Biden’s victory; Is it a win for Indonesia?

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Illustration: Agung Wahyudi/IO

IO – Although Donald Trump has yet to concede to his election loss to Joe Biden and is still mounting a legal challenge to dispute the election results, many predict that come January 20, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th US President. 

Current US politics has debunked the long-held wisdom that the success of democracy requires the maturity of the contesting parties, a highly-educated society with a long history of democracy. 

It is laid bare for all to see that indeed the democratic practices in the US are really not much different from that of the young democracy now being practiced in Indonesia. 

Currently, Biden and his team are taking necessary steps to ensure a smooth leadership transition, despite the effort by President Trump to deny the election victor access to the US bureaucracy. 

Even Secretary of State Michael Pompeo is still trying to prevent Biden from accessing congratulatory messages from foreign leaders, including President Jokowi. At a press conference, Pompeo still brushed aside results of the presidential election and said the winner is yet to be decided. 

If later Joe Biden is declared by the US Congress as winner of the presidential election and is inaugurated, Biden will prioritize his first 100 days in office to address domestic issues in the US. 

First, he would try to reunite and heal the deep polarization within American society. Here he needs Donald Trump’s cooperation. As long as Trump does not recognize Joe Biden’s victory then Trump supporters will not recognize Joe Biden as the US President either. American society will continue in division. 

This division risks sparking more widespread horizontal conflict. In Trump-supporting states, persecution of Biden supporters is not beyond the realm of possibility. 

If this continues, the US is likely to balkanize. Trump-supporting states will break away. The resulting implosion of the US as a global superpower will be imminent. 

This is where Biden’s lobbyists must put all their efforts to penetrate the “wall” built by Trump for the safety and continued existence of the US. 

An equally important task is for Biden to quickly rein in the spread of Covid-19 and work to reduce the death rate. Biden needs to make sure that the vaccine that has recently been confirmed to be effective, will be mass-produced to reach the entire US population. 

The biggest challenge is that a majority of Trump supporters will vehemently refuse to be vaccinated not because they are against the vaccine itself but on account of their distrust of Biden’s policies as President. It is of utmost importance that Biden succeeds in gaining the trust of Trump supporters. 

Next, Biden must boost the US economy in the midst of the pandemic and world recession. Of course, this is easier said than done. Biden must be able to provide economic stimuli to American society and the country.

At the same time, Biden must also be able to restore the trust of US allies and the world. Prior to Trump, there was at least consistency in US foreign policy, even though leadership alternated between the Republican and Democratic presidents. 

Under President Trump, it was as if US values were fading. The US has become unpredictable. World leaders, including US allies, have often been criticized by Trump through his tweets. 

The world, especially US allies, are longing for a pre-Trump US. It was a little wonder that when Biden delivered his victory speech, he proclaimed to the world that “America is Back”. This is because the world, after knowing that Biden has won the US election, seemed to say to the US, “Welcome back America.” 

Joe Biden hails from the Democratic Party, a party that promotes respect for and protection of among others, human rights, minorities and pluralism. 

Therefore, it is not surprising that on the foreign policy front, Biden’s policies will be inseparable from the key issues espoused by the Democratic Party. 

However, it is also noteworthy that the US government is not run by politicians, but also by the bureaucracy. Unlike the bureaucrats, politicians enter and leave office every four years, or a maximum of eight years. Bureaucrats are recruited from the beginning and continue to serve in the government until they retire. 

In the US, bureaucrats are the ones who design and maintain the US policies, including foreign policy. However, it is the politicians who will convey the policy to the public, even symbolically inaugurating it. 

When he was President, Trump did not appreciate bureaucrats seeming to dictate to him to what he can or cannot do. This is why Trump often broke with the policies designed by his bureaucrats. Trump would often do this through his tweets, even firing top bureaucrats. 

However, if the policies suited his political agenda, Trump would capitalize on them. For instance, US policy in the Asia-Pacific. The US views China as a competitor and is worried that China will hold sway over countries in the region with its rising economic and military strength. 

This can be gleaned from the US State Department White Paper which states that China is planning to build military bases in several countries in the region, including Indonesia. 

Thus, it came as no surprise that the former US Defense Secretary Mark Esper invited Defense Minister Prabowo to the US with the aim of strengthening defense cooperation between the two countries. Behind all this, the US actually wants to send a clear message that Indonesia will not easily gravitate into China’s orbit. 

Furthermore, when Secretary of State Michael Pompeo visited Sri Lanka recently, he said that the Chinese Communist Party is “a predator” which entraps many countries through its massive loans they often can’t repay and then intrudes on their sovereignty to advance various Chinese interests in those countries. 

The US wants to discredit China so that countries in the Asia-Pacific, including Indonesia, will not fall within China’s sphere of influence. 

In Indonesia, Michael Pompeo also announced the extension of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). This effectively reversed Trump administration policy at the start of the year that the duty exemption facility enjoyed by a number of countries, including Indonesia, would be revoked. 

This clearly shows that the US wants not only to maintain its influence in Indonesia but to expand it in order to contain China’s growing dominance in the region. 

Even when Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi asked the US to do more to encourage its businessmen to invest in the fishery industry in North Natuna, this was quickly approved. 

US foreign policy on the South China Sea under Joe Biden is expected to remain unchanged. Again, this is because it is designed by the US bureaucrats. 

The point is, the US will continue to grow its influence in regional countries to contain China’s rise, by working with Japan and Australia as the US closest allies in the region. 

For China, the turbulent transfer of power in the US can be used to convey a message to countries in the region that democracy is not necessarily a better choice in providing welfare for the people. 

The one-party system adopted by China and the absence of democracy have been proven to deliver prosperity for the people as long as capitalism is also embraced to China’s advantage. 

This is the challenge that the US is facing in convincing many countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The US must ensure that democracy is the best system. Even if there is a problem with leadership transition, it is more due to Donald Trump’s personality who finds it hard to accept defeat and that in itself is not representative of the democracy in the US. 

Thus, in Biden’s era, many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Indonesia, will gain from the growing rivalry between the US and China. 

Vietnam, which has a sea border dispute with China, their coastguard vessels often clashing at sea, will receive more support from the US. Not surprisingly, during his Asia tour, Secretary Pompeo also took the time to visit Vietnam. 

In the coming Biden’s administration, we can expect more frequent visits by the US Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense to the region. This is meant to send a message to China that the US will have the back of the countries that have a conflict with China, especially concerning territorial disputes in the South China Sea. 

Nevertheless, in the Biden administration, Indonesia must also be vigilant regarding issues on human rights, minorities protection and pluralism. 

It is not impossible that President-elect Biden will pay more attention to these issues. For example, in handling separatism, human rights will be an area of concern. 

In the past, Indonesia had been consistently criticized by the US President from the Democratic Party, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. During Barack Obama’s term, many parties concerned asked Obama to intervene in Indonesia’s handling of human rights issues. 

Of course, Indonesia should be ready to defend its positions when perceived violation of human rights took place. In essence, Indonesia must be able to convey to President-elect Joe Biden that there is no human rights violation in the handling of separatism, religious freedom or other human rights issues. 

However, human rights issue will not interfere with the strengthening of US-Indonesia defense cooperation or the GSP extension. The US is unlikely to compromise this by criticizing Indonesia’s handling of separatism. This is because Indonesia is considered of huge strategic importance by the US in countering China. 

Indeed, the US will be more aggressive in providing development assistance to Indonesia, to compete with the various forms of aid from China. 

Regardless of Joe Biden’s foreign policy when he takes office, the most important thing for Indonesia is to have a relationship with the US that can benefit its national interests, regardless of who the president is. 

It is the duty of whoever is in government that its foreign policy, including toward the US and China, is not dependent on personalities nor the shift in political preference. 

Indonesia must be consistent in implementing a “free and active” foreign policy. Indonesia will be friendly with any country as long as it is beneficial and in alignment with Indonesia’s national interests. 

However, should Indonesia’s national interests be compromised, it must be firm and assertive, even though it has received many facilities and assistance. In a nutshell, Indonesia must stay true to its “all nations are friends, until Indonesia’s sovereignty is degraded and national interest jeopardized” foreign policy credo. (Prof Hikmahanto Juwana, SH, LLM, PhD)

Prof Hikmahanto Juwana, SH, LLM, PhD is the Chansellor of Universitas Jenderal A Yani. He obtained his Bachelor’s degree from the Faculty of Law, University of Indonesia and Master of Laws (LLM)from Keio University, Japan. He then went on to do his doctoral research at the University of Nottingham, England and obtained his PhD in 1997. At age 36 he was the youngest international law professor in the Faculty of Law, University of Indonesia