United States Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Indonesia and neighboring countries on April 15 to 24 could not have come at a more critical time. The tour is Pence’s first official trip to the Asia Pacific and the choice of countries signals a crystal clear message: The US is committed to maintaining its important alliances and interests in the region, as well as strategic partnership with Indonesia.
From Indonesia’s perspective, there is a lot at stake, too.
Pence’s visit not only provides an opportunity to recalibrate Indonesia’s strategic goals in Indonesia-US bilateral relations but also provides an opportunity to engage in constructive talks with the new US administration and gain a better understanding of President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.
There are three key areas of interest that Indonesia should address. First, bilateral trade. Second, regional security. Third, Indonesia’s distinct role in bridging the US with the Islamic world.
Although there have been significant economic paradigm shifts since Trump took office, Washington has not imposed a clear-cut trade policy projection toward Indonesia, nor Asia. Trade relations between Indonesia and the US have remained relatively steady and fairly favorable toward Indonesia.
In President Trump’s eyes, it may be too favorable.
Pence’s visit comes on the heels of the signing of two presidential executive orders that aim to fulfill a key campaign promise — reduce the US’ massive trade deficit. To do so, Trump has instructed his Cabinet to conduct a comprehensive study to identify “abusive trade practices” by foreign countries that contribute to the US deficit. Of the 16 countries publicly scrutinized, Indonesia was included with a trade surplus value of US$13 billion in 2016.
Since early in the election campaign, Trump’s trade policy had stressed a transactional stance, seeking greater wins from trading partners for the benefit of US workers.
However, it is in Indonesia’s best interests to convey expectations that the US continues to play a leading role in maintaining global economic stability, through advancing an open, fair and rules-based trade system.
Around 90 percent of US investment in Indonesia is carried out in the extractive sector. With Pence’s visit, it is high time that Indonesia encourage its US counterpart to explore investment opportunities in the green economy, such as cutting-edge technologies that could help Indonesia meet its energy needs and acquire the capacity to process waste into valuable byproducts. Other potential areas include infrastructure, information technology and the maritime sector.
Although Indonesia is ASEAN’s largest economy, our trade with the US, within the US-ASEAN context, is only ranked fifth compared to other member countries. There is ample room for bilateral trade to grow between the two countries, and with Pence’s visit, Indonesia should capitalize on this opportunity.
As potential conflicts loom on the Korean Peninsula and in the East and South China Seas, Indonesia would like to play the role of an honest broker that can solve all of the region’s problems. However, finding common ground or a solution to these interrelated regional issues might prove to be an arduous task. There is, however, a more viable option. With Pence’s visit to Jakarta, Indonesia could help push the US’ strategic agendas toward a more constructive approach to foster peace and stability in the region.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the spectacular rise of China. Indonesia’s commitment to uphold its “independent and active” foreign policy compels it to balance its relations between these two superpowers.
Thus Indonesia’s bid for the US’ continuing participation at the highest level in regional mechanisms, such as the USASEAN Summit and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, is critical. These involvements should strengthen the signal that the US is committed to maintaining its presence in the region and continue to build on its strategic foundations in the Asia Pacific that have guided past US administrations.
Pence’s visit to Indonesia also corresponds well with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s strong endeavors to protect Indonesia’s maritime borders and sovereign interests at sea. The US has been among Indonesia’s major partners in defense cooperation and it would be timely for Indonesia to propose a stronger partnership.
An area of cooperation scheduled for launch this year is between the US Coast Guard and Indonesia’s Maritime Security Board (Bakamla) and National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas). This is immensely important for Indonesia for two reasons.
First, it provides a tangible pathway to support our ambition of becoming a global maritime fulcrum.
Second, it contributes to much-needed technical skills to efficiently manage the organizations and develop its personnel.
A robust Indonesian defense and patrol system would be in the interest of the US and other regional countries so Indonesia can play a larger role in contributing to peace and stability in the region.
Despite nearly two decades of “war on terror,” terrorism remains a global threat. Two recent military strikes by the US in Syria and Afghanistan have proven President Trump’s hard-line stance. However, many believe this purely hard military tactic is a futile effort.
Indonesia, as the most populous Muslim-majority nation, is in a unique position to propose the new US administration a holistic approach, using not only hard powers but also soft powers, to eradicate the root causes of terrorism.
Both the United Nations and European Union have recognized that combating terrorism should be viewed as a process that begins by “addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism.” A good start in this direction would be to disassociate Islam with terrorism.
A soft power approach has been engaged in Indonesia since previous administrations through the rehabilitation of violent jihadists in prison and other counterpropaganda programs. President Jokowi has further emphasized a religious and cultural approach to curtail the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
To this end, a joint cooperation between Indonesia and the US government to address the issues of diversity, religious tolerance and pluralism, have been established under the framework of Indonesia-US Council on Religion and Pluralism since 2016. With Pence’s visit, Indonesia should initiate pushing this framework back into the limelight and for it to be deployed effectively as a tool to fight terrorism and intolerance, both locally and elsewhere.
If there is place in the world for Vice President Pence to witness Islam and democracy working together harmoniously, we hope his visit to Indonesia will be one to remember.