Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo makes his first visit to Washington for a summit meeting with President Obama in less-than-auspicious circumstances. The honeymoon period that ushered Jakarta governor “Jokowi” (as he is popularly known) to the highest office of Southeast Asia’s largest country has long since worn off. One year into his five-year term, Jokowi has still failed to flesh out a clear vision for his foreign and defense policies. His “global maritime fulcrum” vision of redirecting attention and resources toward Indonesia’s maritime domain comes close, but comprises mostly domestic policies and lacks an overarching strategy. Despite strong U.S. interest in creating a long-term roadmap for bilateral security relations, there has been a disappointing lack of leadership out of the not-so-new government. The absence of more substantial progress in strengthening U.S. cooperation with Indonesia shows some of the limits of security assistance and the U.S. rebalance to Asia: namely, that both depend heavily on effective allies and partners.
The Indonesian President’s pre-summit comments focused on general policies that cannot be implemented quickly, such as joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership or signing a regional Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. The rhetorical blandishments surrounding Jokowi’s visit to the United States, which starts today, are a reminder of both what is different about this important bilateral relationship and what is enduring.
Indonesia was to be a defining new partnership for the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia. President Obama, whose bronze image as a 10-year-old adorns the Jakarta elementary school he attended, raised considerable expectations for the bilateral relationship between the United States and Indonesia. As insiders put it at the time, what George W. Bush did in turning around security ties with India, Obama would do with Indonesia. Southeast Asia was meant to be the main recipient of U.S. emphasis on a more distributed engagement within the region. Strong U.S.-Indonesia ties would be a key pillar in this strategy given the latter’s de facto leadership status within the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN).
No one doubts the importance of Indonesia. It is the world’s fourth most populous country (255 million), the world’s third-largest democracy and largest Muslim-majority state, and the world’s most archipelagic country (more than 17,500 islands). It is also a G-20 economy forecast by many to become a top-tier economy by mid-century. It also straddles vital southern entrances or chokepoints to the South China Sea (the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok).
In November 2010, just months after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped up U.S. diplomacy over growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, President Obama and Indonesian President S. B. Yudhoyono announced a comprehensive partnership that would bring the security relationship to a whole new level. To be sure, the partnership was multifaceted and included governance, energy, environmental issues, and education. But it was the security part of the partnership that represented both a positive step for a nonaligned Indonesia toward a more engaged global role and a harbinger of America’s rebalance to Asia in general and Southeast Asia in particular.
Redefining the security relationship now appears to have been the low-hanging fruit of defense cooperation, with counterterrorism an obvious area for increased engagement. No one questions that Presidents Obama and Yudhoyono significantly transformed the bilateral security relationship for the better. The depth of the long-term commitment was further enshrined in a January 2015 action plan to expand military cooperation and improve Indonesia’s defense capacity within the framework of a U.S. Defense Institution Reform Initiative (DIRI). The sale of eight Apache AH-64E attack helicopters, Longbow fire control radars, and Hellfire air-to-surface missiles provided a bit of hard power to the otherwise soft security relationship.
Regardless of periodic pronouncements and some mid-level cooperation, however, there seems a lack of energy, coherence, and strategic direction to U.S.-Indonesian security ties.
Fortunately, there is still scope for more cooperation, including U.S. support for upgrades to Indonesia’s coast guard, known by its acronym, BAKAMLA. Currently fielding a fleet of old refurbished naval ships, BAKAMLA needs far more resources to adequately patrol the archipelago. Meanwhile, the Apache helicopters, which have been touted on occasion as potential future defenders of Indonesian maritime space around the vital Natuna Islands and gas fields, are not slated to arrive until 2017.
But these modest efforts to help Indonesia’s maritime security capacity could be scaled up dramatically if Jokowi were less ambivalent and directionless regarding defense policy, including a high-level disinterest in the security aspects of his own global maritime fulcrum initiative. The initiative directs energy toward exploring cooperation in that domain and the further upgrading of both military and civil maritime capabilities. Yet the lack of overarching strategy means that prioritizing areas of cooperation remains challenging.
Counterterrorism is another area that requires serious attention. Photographs of the swearing of allegiance ceremony of an Indonesian terrorist group to the Islamic State in a maximum-security prison were captured via mobile phone and disseminated online. This is only one example that highlights the ongoing challenges Indonesian law enforcement faces in tackling a hydra-headed terrorist threat. There is potential for bilateral and multilateral information sharing and dialogue on areas ranging from prison management to online radicalization. Indonesian authorities and counterterrorism experts are also concerned about returning foreign fighters—an area in which Western states could offer assistance.
Some of the core recommendations made in a recent CNAS report on building partner capacity and security assistance by Dafna Rand and Stephen Tankel apply to the U.S.-Indonesia relationship. In particular, we would underscore the authors’ admonition to calibrate assistance “based on what partners need and can absorb.” In many cases, this means more attention to human capital, or as the authors put it, more attention to “headware” than “hardware.”
Of course, not all of the blame for the lackluster pace in U.S.-Indonesian security relations can be placed at the feet of Jokowi. Some of Rand and Tankel’s recommendations—consolidating security assistance and cooperation authorities, reviewing regional programs, and improving interagency coordination—would make the United States a more effective and attractive security partner for all concerned. Moreover, the United States has been slow to fund some of its own good ideas. For instance, Congress needs to fully fund the proposed $425 million, five-year Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, which would accelerate the development of better maritime domain awareness to develop a common operating picture with countries like Indonesia.
Washington also needs to ensure that it maintains an overarching strategy for building Indonesia’s security capacity. The recent Maritime Security Strategy report is a start, but the Defense Department and its interagency partners also need a detailed, strategic requirements roadmap for Indonesia, as for other key allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region. Such a breakdown of short- and long-term requirements needs to rationalize and integrate multiple lines of effort for advancing the rebalance to Asia and building partner capacity. For instance, how can the United States and other regional allies such as Australia and Japan help Indonesia in the coming years and decades to adopt innovative concepts of operation and technologies to counter coercion and proliferating anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities? CNAS is currently working on such an alliance and partner roadmap for countering A2/AD challenges in the region.
The United States is waiting for Widodo. If and when he wants to bolster security cooperation within the framework of a comprehensive economic and diplomatic relationship, Washington will be ready. We need to work on improving Indonesia’s maritime domain awareness, coastal and air defences, and surveillance capabilities. We need to go even further to build on the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises to move Indonesia toward supporting stability in the South China Sea. There is appetite on the Indonesian side for more routine exercises near the Natuna Islands.
President Widodo claims his approach to the South China Sea is to push for more rapid development of a Code of Conduct at ASEAN meetings. But the quest for a binding Code of Conduct is as likely as the quest for the Holy Grail. The prospects for Indonesian leadership on this issue are even more challenging as Jokowi’s foreign policy advisers note a shift away from ASEAN primacy in the country’s foreign policy. Another complicating factor are growing ties with China under Jokowi’s leadership as he seeks to attract much-needed investment in infrastructure projects. We have yet to see whether Indonesia will push for measures antithetical to Chinese interests, particularly on the issue of the South China Sea, where Jakarta prefers to be considered an “honest broker.”
Indonesia’s ability to capitalize on the attention from partners like the United States will depend on more than good relations. Indonesia needs strong domestic leadership for the development of clear and transparent procurement practices and to ensure corruption within the security forces is kept to a minimum. Without a sustained commitment to these areas, there will continue to be limits to the long-term dividends from U.S. security cooperation with Indonesia.