Indonesia: America’s undervalued ally

By Anne Walker | Staff Writer

In January, the Biden administration promoted Ambassador Sung Kim to Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. This move leaves Kim’s previous position, US ambassador to Indonesia, empty. Since Indonesian President Joko Widodo recalled his Ambassador to the US in December, both embassies await new appointments. Unfortunately, this temporary lack of diplomatic leadership seems to reflect a larger trend of America undervaluing US-Indonesia relations.

Achieving a GDP of $1.119 trillion in 2019, Indonesia fosters the largest economy in Southeast Asia. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impair the G20 nation’s growth, but Jokowi still doggedly pursues his primary goal: transforming Indonesia’s economy into the fifth largest by 2036.

Along with its economic significance, Indonesia holds an increasingly important geopolitical role in Asia. Following India and the US, Indonesia is the third largest democracy in the world. With a democratic tradition and a large military, Indonesia helps ensure stability in Southeast Asia and will remain a critical ally as US tensions with China increase. As displayed last year when Chinese fishing vessels encroached waters around the Natuna Islands, Indonesia also holds a prominent role in upholding freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

Despite their unresolved disputes in the South China Sea, Indonesia values its relationship with China for the economic and technological benefits. Like many of its neighbors, Indonesia courted Chinese assistance during the pandemic. The countries reached an agreement last August for Indonesia to receive COVID-19 vaccines for testing and distribution from the Chinese company Sinovac.

China’s heightened influence in Indonesia did not go unnoticed by the Trump administration. In its last year, the Trump administration pursued a number of diplomatic initiatives towards Indonesia; however, experts hesitate to commend these efforts as progress in US-Indonesia relations. Indonesian officials will probably recognize these actions as short-term responses to Chinese influence. The US needs to signal a lasting commitment to a renewed US-Indonesia partnership.

Overall, America’s relationship with Indonesia appears neglected. According to The Diplomat, the value of the US-Indonesia trade partnership stagnated around 2010 and has yet to increase past $30 billion despite recent economic growth in both countries. Even before Indonesia’s ambassador to the US, Muhammad Lutfi, left his position to serve as trade minister, the diplomatic post sat unfilled for a year during the Trump administration. The length of this vacancy reveals how little Indonesia has come to expect from its relationship with the US.

The Biden administration should pursue a new approach to US-Indonesia relations. Outside of appointing a new ambassador, the administration must take decisive steps to revitalize America’s partnership with Indonesia. Indonesia is looking for economic partners that will help the nation achieve its 2036 goal. The Biden administration should ensure the US is one of those partners. If the US wants to secure a strong ally to promote democracy and counter Chinese aggression in Southeast Asia, the US must be willing to invest in Indonesia.