The future of U.S.-Indonesia relations


IO – Almost seventy years ago, the United States and Indonesia officially established diplomatic relations.  For the most part, Washington and Jakarta have managed ever since to maintain close ties, the main exception being the 1950s and 60s when President Sukarno played a political balancing act between the military, Islamists and the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI.  

   Looking at Asia primarily through the lens of the Cold War and fearful of a domino effect in which the fall of one country in Asia could hypothetically trigger a chain of countries falling to communism, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and his CIA under the direction of Allen Dulles felt Sukarno could not be trusted, and they consequently plotted for his removal.  Afterwards, President John F. Kennedy made an attempt to repair the damages done by the machinations of the CIA, and for a while Kennedy’s charm offensive worked.  But with Kennedy assassinated after little more than 1,000 days in office and America’s war in Vietnam under Lyndon Johnson turning into a bloody quagmire, fear of the possibility of Indonesia falling into the laps of the international communist movement were revived.

   With the purging of the PKI in 1965-66 and the rise of Suharto in 1967, Washington’s Cold Warriors could feel comfortable now with the thought that Indonesia, the lynchpin of Southeast Asia, was in the hands of a reliable ally in the palace.  Suharto, a fervent anti-communist, suspended diplomatic relations with Beijing and was critical of the Kremlin, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which many Indonesians claimed was akin to communist crimes against Muslims.

   After Suharto fell from in power in 1998 and the Cold War no longer a defining feature, Washington still managed to keep good relations with Suharto’s successors, including B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati Soekarnoputri and especially Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who spent part of his formative years in the United States.

   Today, however, is a slightly different story.  While the U.S.-Indonesia relationship can still be described as strong, in relative terms it is in the decline. 

  While most observors believe the decline started in earnest with the beginning of the Trump presidency, in reality it has a much longer trajectory, starting with America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Preoccupied with the dangers posed to stability in the Middle East and terrorist groups, first with Al Qaeda and then ISIS, America’s seemingly endless wars diverted its attention away from Asia and the rising influence of China.   U.S. President Barack Obama recognized this weakness, which is what prompted then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to devise the so-called ‘pivot’.  But if you ask Asia’s diplomats, the pivot–which was supposed to result in a stronger American presence in the region–was never felt.

  That China should become more influential in world affairs in general and in its own backyard is normal given its size.  The Trump administration sees China’s rise as a threat, and it is one of the few policy issues that both the Democratic and Republican parties agree upon.  But what Washington fails to understand is that Asian countries, Indonesia included, desparately want to avoid a new cold war with themselves feeling compelled to take sides.

For the time being, the Trump administration is addressing the China question by placing more emphasis on military cooperation with its allies and placing more of its naval assets in the Indo-Pacific region.  Where it has failed, and where Beijing has excelled, is in its commercial diplomacy.  Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia have seen Beijing leverage its commerce to gain influence and favor in bi-lateral and regional affairs–one obvious example is the South China Sea dispute.

  It remains to be seen what will happen in the coming years.  With the White House consumed with impeachment hearings and the presidential election around the corner, the opportunity for China to make more friends is that much greater.  At the same time it is not clear whether or not a change in Washington would bring about a new direction in Asia policy.  While a Warren or Biden in the Oval Office could usher in a much welcomed atmosphere of stability, the U.S. State Department and its diplomatic corps would still need a massive fix after the recent abuses it suffered under the likes of Rex Tillerson.  There is also no guarantee that any president coming from the Democratic party will have the foresight and courage to make drastic changes in its Asia policy.  The status quo–a rising China with America in decline–could easily remain in place.