An Indonesian Perspective on the U.S. Rebalancing Effort toward Asia

by Dewi Fortuna Anwar
February 26, 2013

As the United States begins to shift its focus and resources to Asia, regional states are paying close attention to U.S. actions. Dewi Fortuna Anwar provides an Indonesian perspective on the U.S. rebalancing strategy in this NBR Commentary, analyzing regional dynamics and describing Indonesia’s expectations and concerns.

By Dewi Fortuna Anwar
February 26, 2013

Analyses of the United States’ rebalancing effort toward Asia (also known as the U.S. “pivot”) under President Barack Obama have mostly focused on China. Through the rebalancing policy, Washington is seen as trying to recapture lost ground, as well as reaffirming to allies, friends, and adversaries alike that the United States is a Pacific power with inalienable strategic interests and rights in the Asia-Pacific region. Within this strategy, Southeast Asia is considered to be a subregion of particular interest. This essay examines the U.S. pivot to Asia from the perspective of Indonesia.

Courting Southeast Asia: The United States vs. China

While the United States was preoccupied with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and gave scant attention to affairs in the Asia-Pacific region throughout the George W. Bush administration, China transformed its relations with countries in Southeast Asia and with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Through a well-conceived charm offensive, which began in the late 1990s when it provided assistance to countries suffering from the Asian financial crisis, China assiduously courted ASEAN and improved bilateral relations with key members. Within a relatively short time, Beijing succeeded in developing close bilateral ties with countries that had earlier viewed China with suspicion, including Indonesia, and established itself as a key player in the regional architectures of the wider East Asia region.

In the view of ASEAN, whose five original members had close relations with Washington and no diplomatic relations with Beijing throughout most of the Cold War period, the contrast between China’s attention and the United States’ relative neglect was clearly illustrated by the unfailing attendance of top Chinese leaders at ASEAN-driven regional meetings, on the one hand, and the repeated absence of U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), on the other. A number of analysts have pointed out that Secretary Rice’s decision to miss the ARF meetings in 2005 and 2007 indicated the waning significance of the ARF, and probably also of ASEAN, to Washington. The United States had also refused to accede to the protocol of the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia. In contrast, China acceded to the TAC in 2003. When the East Asia Summit (EAS) was established in 2005, comprising the ten ASEAN countries plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand, the United States was not eligible to join because signing the TAC was one of the criteria for membership. For its part, Washington at the time indicated little interest in this important development in the Asia-Pacific region. As a result, until November 2011, when President Obama attended the EAS for the first time, the U.S. president only met with fellow Asia-Pacific leaders during the annual APEC leaders’ summit and retreat. During the same period, China’s membership in the ASEAN +3 (China, Japan, and South Korea), the EAS, and APEC allowed Chinese leaders to strengthen newly forged ties with neighboring countries through more frequent meetings at the top level.

Notwithstanding the fact that the United States was never truly absent from Southeast Asia—as indicated by its continued close bilateral relations with most ASEAN member states, ongoing commitment to its regional allies, and overwhelming maritime military presence—the perception that the U.S. role in regional affairs was declining as China’s was ascending cannot be easily dismissed. In retrospect, the absence of overt U.S. involvement gave East Asian countries a rare window of opportunity to develop a new set of relationships among themselves, particularly for managing China’s rise in a more inclusive way. It also enabled ASEAN to take a leading role in fostering regional mechanisms aimed at promoting peace, stability, and prosperity by engaging richer and more powerful countries, including China, in regional architectures. Nevertheless, the United States’ low-level engagement in wider East Asian affairs was not perceived favorably by ASEAN in general or Indonesia in particular, since it opened the way for the region to come under the sway of one regional hegemon. There was no illusion that ASEAN members and other countries would be able to deal with an increasingly powerful China on equitable terms by themselves.

Indonesia and the U.S. Pivot

Indonesia has prided itself on its “free and active” foreign policy doctrine, signified by its leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement and refusal to side with one power bloc against another. During the Cold War period, internal ideological divisions made steering a middle course challenging. Indonesia tilted to the left and developed close links with Beijing under the revolutionary Sukarno, whereas his anti-Communist successor Suharto subsequently froze diplomatic ties with China and cooperated closely with the United States. In the post–Cold War period, however, Indonesia has made a special effort to revitalize its free and active foreign policy by striving to develop friendly relations with most countries while at the same time supporting a truly multilateral global power structure. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono argues that Indonesia’s foreign policy is characterized by the pursuit of “one million friends, zero enemies,” and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa supports a “dynamic equilibrium” among the major powers, particularly in a regional context. Whereas the traditional concept of balance of power is conflictual in nature, the concept of dynamic equilibrium envisages a more cooperative system of relations between powers without any clear-cut adversaries.

Indonesia has fully welcomed the transformation and opening of China and sought to take advantage of its economic opportunities and scientific progress. Although initially reluctant to engage with China, Indonesia has forged closer bilateral relations between the two countries, culminating in the signing of a strategic partnership agreement in 2005, and has also encouraged Beijing’s close cooperation with ASEAN. Indonesia, like other members of ASEAN, strongly believes that the best way to ensure that China’s policy toward the region is friendly is by convincing Beijing that it has a direct strategic interest in Southeast Asian security and prosperity. At the same time, however, uncertainty about the future remains. While China has tried to reassure neighboring countries that its rapid rise is accompanied by peaceful intentions, there is no guarantee that this will be the case in the long term. Beijing’s increasingly assertive behavior in disputed maritime areas in the South and East China seas has undermined some of the results of China’s earlier charm offensive. Hence, there is an urgent need for the development of a more robust regional structure in which China’s overwhelming power can be harnessed more peacefully and productively within an East Asian community.

Thus, while trying to integrate China into the evolving regional architecture, Indonesia has opposed the formation of a regional institution in which China’s power would outweigh that of other members. When the EAS was first proposed in 2005, a number of ASEAN members and China envisaged that it would be the formalization of the ASEAN +3 with an additional noneconomic agenda. Indonesia, however, was concerned that in such a regional setting China would be able to dictate the summit’s agenda, and therefore Jakarta argued for enlarging the EAS’s membership by expanding the strategic boundary of East Asia to include India, Australia, and New Zealand. With the “dynamic equilibrium” ideology in mind, and to complete the circle of powers within the EAS, Jakarta also strongly pushed for widening membership to include the United States and Russia.

Indonesia thus warmly welcomed the Obama administration’s decision to rebalance U.S. policy toward Asia and give higher priority to relations with ASEAN, signified in part by Washington’s accession to the TAC. Besides signing the TAC, a country interested in becoming a member of the EAS must be a full dialogue partner of ASEAN and have substantive economic relations with the region, criteria that the United States had already fulfilled. At the bilateral level, Indonesia sought to engage the United States more closely given the new momentum provided by the election of President Obama after the low period of the Bush administration. The latter’s decision to launch a unilateral invasion of Iraq had been strongly opposed by Indonesia, while President Obama is widely popular in the country because he spent some of his early years in Jakarta. His administration’s policies of multilateralism and rebalancing toward Asia have reinforced this popularity and raised the United States’ stock considerably.

From Jakarta’s perspective, the importance Washington attaches to Indonesia and ASEAN should not simply be derivative of China’s rise but instead be based on the intrinsic value of the country and subregion. As the largest country in Southeast Asia and the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation and third-largest democracy, Indonesia has sought to enhance its international footprint, particularly in key bilateral relationships. President Yudhoyono first proposed in November 2008 that Jakarta and Washington sign a comprehensive partnership to broaden and deepen relations between the two countries, which was quickly endorsed by the new Obama administration. The Comprehensive Partnership Agreement was signed during President Obama’s first visit to Indonesia in November 2010, which probably marked the highest point in bilateral relations.

Yet, while welcoming the U.S. rebalancing toward Asia, some in Indonesia have raised concerns that Washington has placed too much emphasis on the military dimension of this strategy. The announcement of the rotational basing of 2,500 U.S. marines in Darwin, Australia, was initially met with sharp criticism from the Indonesian foreign minister, who feared that such a move could lead to counterreaction and the heightening of regional tension. Although President Obama was later able to reassure President Yudhoyono at the 2011 EAS in Bali that the Darwin deployment is not aimed against any country but rather intended to improve disaster-relief readiness, concerns about possible regional repercussions persist among key Indonesian officials. Both the Indonesia foreign minister and defense chief have suggested that China should be invited to take part in joint military exercises with the United States and Australia in order to improve overall preparedness for humanitarian disaster relief.

At the national level, Indonesians have also reacted negatively to the presence of U.S. troops. Darwin is located just a short distance from Indonesia’s troubled province Papua, where the giant U.S. mining company PT Freeport Indonesia operates. Besides reflecting Indonesia’s hostility to foreign military bases close to its national borders, many political pundits in Jakarta have expressed concerns that the U.S. forces in Darwin could be used to intervene on behalf of the often security-beleaguered PT Freeport Indonesia. Although such a scenario is highly unlikely, many in Indonesia still remember the United States’ support for regional rebels in the late 1950s, when Washington used the protection of U.S. oil companies in Sumatra as a pretext for intervention.

U.S. rebalancing toward Asia has generally been welcomed by ASEAN member countries, including Indonesia. After a period of relative decline that coincided with China’s rapid ascendance in regional affairs, the U.S. pivot to Asia seems to have redressed this imbalance. At the bilateral level, U.S.-Indonesian relations, notwithstanding the existence of a number of residual problems, have reached a higher level than before with the signing of the Comprehensive Partnership Agreement. When Jakarta and Washington occasionally and unavoidably adopt different stances and policies on particular issues, such as on Israeli-Palestinian tensions, widening and deepening government-to-government as well as people-to-people cooperation will hopefully provide sufficient ballast to safeguard relations.