How Biden Should Embrace Indonesia

Such a huge challenge must be faced by Washington, Beijing has succeeded in becoming a major player in the Southeast Asian region through economic cooperation. From a report submitted by the Atlantic Council in 2021, in the 1980s Southeast Asia was Washington’s territory, however, in 2021 things turned around, Beijing succeeded in taking over Washington’s influence as in Indonesia.

It should be noted that the relationship between Indonesia and the United States has been established since 1949 through the recognition of Indonesia’s independence. However, relations between the two countries experienced ups and downs, during the Cold War Indonesia was one of the pawns important for the US to prevent the influence of communism in Southeast Asia, until the tension caused by President Soeharto’s policy in East Timor which caused an arms embargo for Indonesia for 10 years. During the Trump administration, relations between the two countries were strained again, Trump had never visited Indonesia during his 4 years of administration, and during the pandemic the assistance provided by America was very limited. Therefore, this role was taken over by China.

Proximity to China

The Indonesian government has a very close relationship with China. In 2020 China will become Indonesia’s main trading partner with a total of 72.8 billion dollars. In fact, this figure is far beyond the US which is only able to contribute 27 billion dollars. China managed to become the second largest investor in Indonesia after Singapore, this investment was carried out in 2,130 projects with a total of 4.8 billion dollars. Indonesia was part of the BRI (Belt And Road Initiative) project in 2013 and the AIIB (Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank) in 2014.

The closeness between Indonesia and China was accompanied by various problems. According to a survey conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit in 2020, Indonesia’s democracy is at its lowest position in 14 years, with only getting a score of 6.3 and located in the flawed democracy category. One of the factors that makes Indonesia’s democracy index low is the government’s policy which is quite repressive towards Islamic groups.

The Jokowi administration itself is quite harsh on several Islamic groups that are not in line with it. From an article published by the East Asia Forum, it is stated that people and groups who tend to support values ​​such as the caliphate will be classified as radical groups. And those involved will get punishment in the form of dismissal from work to being thrown into prison. It was proven by the revocation of the operating license of the HTI organization (Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia) and the arrest of Eggi Sudjana who was one of the initiators of the 212 action. This fear stems from protests against hate speech committed by the former governor of Jakarta in 2016.

Islamic groups such as the FPI (Islamic Defenders Front) ) firmly criticized Jokowi and China’s policies. On March 6, 2020 in front of the ChinaEmbassy in Jakarta, the FPI mass held a demonstration by saying that “Brothers and sisters, try to imagine when China was ravaged by Corona, he (Jokowi) telephoned the China president (saying) we would help. Uighurs are slaughtered in silence, when Indian Muslims are slaughtered in silence, when Rohingya Muslims are slaughtered in silence, it is China’s turn to be attacked by corona, we are ready to help, that’s the president, gentlemen.”

President Jokowi’s closeness to China has made Indonesia very careful about issues involving China. Jokowi, who tends to hold back when Muslims in Uighurs are being tortured by the China government. Even though the majority of Indonesian people are adherents of the Islamic religion, Jokowi’s actions should be in line with the aspirations of the people.

China is increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea.

The close relationship in the economic sector is not followed by the defense sector. Since 2014, China has massively and systematically built a military base containing buildings, missile systems, and seven airfields in the South China Sea. China argues that the South China Sea is China’s sovereign territory, this is based on historical claims in the 15th century when the China navy sailed the area and this area had been abandoned by Japan after the second world war. The South China Sea is a very important region, 30% of world trade passes through this region, there are 10% of the world’s fish reserves, 11 billion barrels of oil, 109 trillion cubic meters of gas.

Indonesia does not have sovereignty in the South China Sea. However, Indonesia has sovereign rights in the form of an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) in the waters of North Natuna. China openly claims this area as part of its own, therefore since 2016 the China government has provided protection for fishing vessels entering the North Natuna area, as well as conducting patrols using Coast Guard vessels. This caused tensions for both countries, in the first conducted with the Malaysian Prime Minister in February 2021 Jokowi stated “I emphasize that stability will be created including in the South China Sea if all countries respect international law, especially UNCLOS (UN Conference on the Law of the Sea) 1982.” As well as a firm stance by making diplomatic calls and lobbying with the US carried out by Defense Minister Prabowo at the end of 2020.

Steps Biden Must Take

There is still a chance for Washington to be able to reverse the situation, from a survey conducted by ISEAS, in 2021 people in ASEAN prefers Washington over Beijing as its main partner country with a percentage of 60.5%. And 76.3% feel that Beijing is a real threat to the Southeast Asia region. In Indonesia, the sentiment towards China in the Jokowi government is getting bigger, the narrative used by the opposition is that the Jokowi government is too submissive to China. And the bad sentiment that grew in Indonesian society as a result of the rebellion carried out by the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) in 1965 is still holding strong.

The decline in Indonesia’s democracy index could be an opportunity for Biden to strengthen the narrative that democracy is currently facing a real threat from authoritarianism. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that the current administration seeks to strengthen America at home and abroad. So in order to achieve this goal the government tries to re-promote democracy, however, the methods used will not be the same as in the past which focused on overthrowing authoritarian regimes or the use of military intervention which was very expensive. This will be manifested in the form of democratic behavior through reforms, the cancellation of bad laws and eradicating corruption. Even though it must be realized that the democratic narrative is only used if it is in the interests of America.

In the book Trump vs China by Newt Gingrich, Grinch argues that the world should be aware that all investments made by China companies come from the approval of the China Communist Party (CCP). Therefore it can be interpreted that all investments made by China companies are in accordance with the objectives of the China Communist Party. Biden must be aware that if China’s investment in Indonesia gets bigger it will be followed by the influence of the China Communist Party, increasing economic cooperation is a realistic choice and must be accompanied by a strong commitment.

And finally, Biden must convince Indonesia that the US will become a strong ally in the South China Sea. Increasing the purchase of weapons is an obligation, regular military training must be increased so that there is a sense of security. America and its allies began to move massively in the South China Sea through cooperation between the US, UK and Australia which manifested in the form of AUKUS (cooperation to purchase nuclear submarines). Although on the one hand this is a threat to Indonesia.

Gufron Gozali
Gufron Gozali
Gufron Gozali is a junior research assistant from the Islamic University of Indonesia, whose research focuses on the United States and the Middle East.