For leaders of large Asian countries, the United States is the focus for fall 2016. After India’s Narendra Modi and China’s Xi Jinping both visited the US in September, Indonesian President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo landed on US soil this week, for the first time since he took office a little more than a year ago. Today, Indonesia sits at an important crossroads as it engages with the US and China, all while forging its own identity in Southeast Asia. During Jokowi’s visit, the US should build on its existing comprehensive partnership with Indonesia by strengthening bilateral security and defense ties and continuing to court Indonesia economically, specifically in light of the newly-agreed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Washington should also push Jakarta to use its perennial leadership role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to advocate for democratic and human rights norms in the region.
Since the Suharto era, the US and Indonesia have maintained close security ties. This facet of the bilateral relationship should be augmented during this month’s visit. Jokowi aims to make Indonesia a maritime power that serves as a strategic and economic link between the Indian and Pacific oceans. The US should help Jokowi realize this goal by providing assistance as Indonesia plans to create a coast guard independent of its navy. This assistance could come in the form of the US Coast Guard training its Indonesian counterpart and possible joint exercises in 2016. Moreover, as the world’s maritime superpower, the US has much to offer Indonesia as it looks to upgrade its own capabilities. A new strategic dialogue focused on maritime security would serve to strengthen bilateral ties and help Jakarta attain its maritime goals.
Additionally, Indonesia has struggled with piracy throughout the archipelago and is host to a low-level insurgency in its western islands. Recently, more than 500 Indonesians have traveled to the Middle East to join the Islamic State (IS). The US should offer to assist Indonesia in combating both off-shore piracy and terrorism through an agreement for enhanced cooperation on terrorism and intelligence sharing.
In Jokowi’s visit, the US also has an opportunity to enhance economic ties with Indonesia. The country of 250 million has great economic potential; however the first year of the Jokowi presidency has been marked by low growth rates and disappointing economic stimulus packages. Jokowi desires to attract investment from US businesses, however regulatory red-tape and a penchant for economic nationalism has scared away foreign enterprises in the past. To solve this issue and benefit both sides, Washington and Jakarta should lay the groundwork for a new bilateral investment agreement.
In addition, the US should continue to court Indonesia to join the TPP. With negotiations recently concluding in Atlanta, now is the perfect time to remind Indonesia of the economic benefits of joining the trade pact. In the past, the Indonesian response to the TPP has been lukewarm, though fears of falling behind its neighbors in attracting foreign direct investment could spur Jakarta to reconsider the treaty.
Lastly, Washington should not miss this chance to encourage Indonesia to continue its leadership role in ASEAN. As the regional bloc’s largest country and strongest democracy, Indonesia holds a special place among the member states and its past efforts have shaped political transitions in places like Cambodia and Myanmar. The US should push Jokowi to continue to advocate for democratic and human rights norms in the region, especially at a time when these institutions are under renewed peril in Thailand and Myanmar. Additionally, ASEAN member states face a threat from Chinese
expansion in the South China Sea. A strong Indonesia is necessary if ASEAN is able to stand-up to its northern neighbor’s provocations.
After more than five years, the US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership could use a refresher and Jokowi’s visit to the US provides the perfect opportunity. By enhancing military-to-military ties, pushing for a new bilateral investment treaty and encouraging Indonesia to continue its leadership in ASEAN, the US can develop Indonesia into a robust regional partner capable of supporting the United States’ interests in Southeast Asia.