While the world was distracted by last month’s US presidential election, Indonesia quietly announced a marked shift in its defense strategy aimed at sending an unambiguous message to Beijing.
The Indonesian navy is reportedly moving one of its main battle groups from the capital Jakarta to the Natuna Islands on the South China Sea in the far north of the country.
The task of the fleet would be to intercept foreign vessels, especially Chinese vessels, which increasingly encroach on the waters around the Natuna Islands where Indonesia and China are claiming fishing rights.
Such overt military gestures are unusual for the largest country in Southeast Asia, which since independence has not sought to openly oppose or align itself with the great powers.
But for US President-elect Joe Biden, any tension between Jakarta and Beijing will represent a chance to reconnect US ties with Cold War Indonesia at a time when China is expanding its influence in the region.
Indonesia is one of the biggest diplomatic awards in Asia. It has the fourth largest population in the world and is the largest predominantly Muslim country with a vast archipelago that commands strategic sea lanes connecting Asia with the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
“He [Indonesia] is seen as a critical node in American Indo-Pacific strategy. Therefore, Washington has an interest in pulling Jakarta. . . far from Beijing, ”wrote Leo Suryadinata, visiting principal researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, in a paper.
While the United States maintained ties with Indonesia during Donald Trump’s presidency, Jakarta found its “America First” isolationism and belligerent stance on Beijing uncomfortable, analysts said. Indonesia’s political goal since the end of the Cold War has been to carefully balance relations with the United States and China.
While Mr Biden would view China as a competitor, his administration would likely be “more nuanced and more focused” on Southeast Asia, said Dino Patti Djalal, chairman of the Indonesian Foreign Policy Community and former ambassador to the United States.
Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia, was among the first world leaders to congratulate Biden on his victory.
Mr. Trump has not formally appointed an ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, although he has appointed two, and has only attended one of his tops. Indonesia is the largest country in the 10-nation trading bloc which also includes Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, and Myanmar.
“How do we figure in [his] world Vision? Mr. Djalal asked, adding that Mr. Widodo had not visited the United States throughout the Trump presidency. “That should say something.”
The forceful approach of Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, has not always been well received in Jakarta. He called on Jakarta in October to more openly criticize Beijing for alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang, the Chinese province where around 1 million Muslims have been held.
Indonesia was looking for “a predictable professional foreign policy that will give it greater comfort in working with the United States on separate issues such as technology or supply chain security,” said Aaron Connelly, of the ‘International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank.
“What Indonesia didn’t like about Pompeo was not the substance of his appeals, but the way he turned up the heat in every room he was in,” Mr. Connelly said. “He didn’t behave like a diplomat, he behaved like a cable reporter.”
Antony Blinken, named Mr. Pompeo’s successor, is “as different as possible, in terms of temperament and judgment”, he added.
A softer relationship with Washington could help Jakarta offset Beijing’s influence as China pushes “vaccine diplomacy” across Southeast Asia, filling a void left by the United States.
Indonesia, which has the highest number of coronavirus infections in Southeast Asia, has signed an agreement with China’s Sinovac to provide at least 40 million doses of its CoronaVac vaccine by March 2021.
“Taking Chinese vaccines is clearly risky because of course there are political constraints,” said Gregory Poling, senior researcher for Southeast Asia at CSIS.
“China will come to pay this debt, whether it be on the UN vote or the silence on the Xinjiang or South China Sea issues. But Jakarta must determine that it is the lesser of two evils if the United States and its partners are do not offer alternatives. “
China has also become Indonesia’s largest trading partner and second source of foreign direct investment. The projects include a $ 6 billion bullet train project under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Sino-Indonesian relations have heated up so much under Mr. Widodo that the opposition accused him of being an apologist for Beijing, attacking him for refusing to condemn the imprisonments in Xinjiang.
But others say Mr Widodo has resisted Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. They cite his visit to the Natuna Islands in January during a confrontation between Indonesian and Chinese ships and his plan to move the naval battle group there.
Most analysts believe Indonesia can withstand pressure from the two superpowers to cede strategic autonomy, but it will be up to the Biden administration to prevent China from making further advances.
“We are waiting to see how the president-[elect] Biden will regain the region’s confidence in America, ”said Djalal, the former ambassador to the United States. “But it’s important to understand that it won’t be automatic. It takes work to reclaim this space. “