U.S.-Indonesian Relations at a Crossroads

The U.S. and Indonesia have enjoyed good bilateral relations since the late 1960s, when the rise of Soeharto saw the elimination of the world’s largest communist party in a non-communist country. Relations have been grown warmer since the fall of the New Order in 1998, and after the election of President Obama. For nearly twenty years, Indonesia has been a useful partner, a moderate Muslim-majority democracy committed to combatting international terrorism.

Now, quite unexpectedly, U.S.-Indonesian relations are at a crossroads.* The election of President-elect Donald Trump brings to office a president with no meaningful foreign policy experience but extensive business interests in Indonesia. At the same time, Indonesia is experiencing one of its periodic upticks in visible Islamism in national politics, featuring most notably the mobilization of hundreds of thousands for a march in Jakarta defending Islam. The intersection of these two developments will have substantial implications for U.S.-Indonesian relations in the coming decade.

Let’s take the U.S. case first. President-elect Trump has no foreign policy experience, and observers of U.S. foreign policy have repeatedly remarked that he and his transition team have been slow to build out his foreign policy arm. As I noted here in discussing Trump and Southeast Asia, this makes it hard to know what sort of expertise and interests will be represented in the region. But one thing is almost for certain: those countries and regions that are relatively low foreign policy priorities are likely to be afterthoughts at best, ignored at worst.

In such situations, people-to-people contacts among career diplomats in the State Department ought to maintain good relations between the U.S and Indonesia. However, a foreign policy team that is uninterested in or simply unaware of the details may make the jobs of Indonesia hands quite a bit harder. To give one example, the South China Sea is shaping up to be an area where China will test the new U.S. administration. Countries in East and Southeast Asia are important partners here. But Indonesia’s position on the South China Sea is delicate and nuanced, as Indonesia does not have any direct stake in the territorial dispute. Nevertheless, it has recently displayed more assertiveness around the Natuna archipelago—unquestionably part of Indonesian territory—after recent confrontations with China. From a purely U.S.-centric perspective, how to manage this regional partner to get what both countries want in the South China Sea? This requires understanding how Indonesians value territorial sovereignty as well as the relationship between foreign/security policy aims and the various arms of the Indonesian government. The devil is all in the details, and ill-considered statement about U.S. intentions in the region could do serious damage.

But for all the uncertainty about the Trump administration’s foreign policy attention and expertise, there are other personal connections that might matter. President-elect Trump and media mogul Hary Tanoesoedibjo are business partners, and Hary Tanoe will attend the inauguration. This is meaningful because Hary Tanoe has started his own political party, Partai Perindo, as a personal vehicle through which to seek the Indonesian presidency in 2019.

The fact that Hary Tanoe happens to be of Chinese ancestry, and Christian, makes developments on the Indonesian side particularly interesting.

Jakarta’s Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known popularly as Ahok, is currently on trial for blasphemy, allegedly having insulted Islam in a speech last fall. Jakarta is both the capital and largest city of Indonesia, and so this trial gets national attention even if the verdict is all but certain. Indonesian law does make it illegal to insult another religion, but every serious observer understands that Ahok’s trial is part of the current chapter of the Game of Houses** in Indonesian politics. Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s son Agus Harimurti is challenging Ahok for Governor. So too is Anies Baswedan, who has embraced hardline Islamists and is supported by Prabowo Subianto. Ahok, brought into Jakarta politics from Bangka-Belitung by Prabowo, is now supported by Megawati Sukarnoputri. Ahok, being a Christian of Chinese descent, is uniquely vulnerable to criticism that he has insulted Islam.

On December 2 of this past year, a mass demonstration was held in Jakarta entitled “Defending Islam Action III.” Perhaps as many as 750,000 people attended. Greg Fealy’s analysis addresses the potential links between this anti-Ahok protest and the possibly Islamist motives of many of the participants. As Sana Jaffrey has observed, recent years have seen a rise in actions protesting “insults” and “offenses”, although the December 2 demonstration is obviously different from the kinds of mob actions which comprise the bulk of such incidents.

The global optics of Islamist mobilization in Indonesia are not good (see e.g. this New York Times story from last week). Hary Tanoe sided with Prabowo in the 2014 elections. He has defended the Indonesian police in the Ahok case, and criticized Jokowi for not dealing swiftly enough to forestall the December 2 protests. (It is not clear what Hary Tanoe thinks Jokowi should have done besides being decisive and authoritative in some abstract way.) I happen to believe that the current emphasis on Islamic radicalism in Indonesia is misplaced; such headline-grabbing events happen every couple of years, and Indonesia has a long history of Islamist movements in politics, all the way back to Sarekat Islam. But that does not much matter, especially to any observer who is uninterested or ill-equipped to understand Indonesia’s political history or the complex motivations of those who participate in Indonesian social movements.

How then should we understand the new Trump administration in the context of Indonesian national politics? Best case scenario: business as usual for a country located far from the Eurasia-Oceania alliance. I suspect, however, that relations may change, perhaps not deteriorating, but resting less on mutual strategic interests and more on the transactional nature of Trump’s own interests in Indonesia.

The implications could be important. For example, in the context of an administration less focused on foreign policy but with personal and business connections to wealthy elites seeking political power, a new narrative might emerge about Indonesia in DC. Under Obama, as under Bush, Indonesia was a partial success story, an example for other Muslim majority countries of how democracy and Islam can mix even under inauspicious conditions (relative poverty, extreme inequality, territorial fragmentation, etc). Under Trump, the stage is being set for Indonesia to be portrayed as acutely vulnerable to Islamic extremism under the weak leadership of mild and indecisive leaders like Jokowi.

The premise of the U.S.-Indonesian relationship would thus change, from one of “basically Indonesia has it right, how can we help?” to “basically Indonesia has it wrong, what can we change?” That is a U.S. position that Indonesians have good, historical grounds to fear.

It would also be completely counterproductive. Not only does it play perfectly into the hands of the Islamists, it would also make it harder to work with a Jakarta security establishment that is already quite sensitive to foreign interference.


* It seems like Indonesia is always at a crossroads, as Homer Simpson observed. (Here is The Economist explaining the Simpsons mocking The Economist.)

** A.k.a. Daes Dae’mar.