Indonesia: Wary of America’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ Policy?

12 Jul, 2012    ·   3672

Vibhanshu Shekhar highlights the emerging priorities of Indonesia in view of statements made by the US leadership

Vibhanshu Shekhar
Vibhanshu Shekhar
Research Fellow
Indian Council of World Affairs
New Delhi
Two statements (Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ and the stationing of the American marines at the Australian port of Darwin and Panetta’s ‘rebalancing’ of US strategy - designating the Asia Pacific as main focus) from the US in 2012 have redrawn the strategic landscape of the Asia Pacific. While the re-engagement of the US has been viewed as a stabilising factor, the sheer magnitude of possible implications of the policy shift has caused concern among some of the countries of the region. This commentary focuses on how Indonesia perceives this new American strategy.

On deploying US marines at the Australian port of Darwin, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Natalegawa declared that such a move would create a ‘vicious circle of tension and mistrust’. The frankness of Natalegawa flustered both the American and Australian governments causing them to open diplomatic channels of clarification and rebuild confidence in Indonesia. As a result, the Indonesian President Yudhoyono expressed confidence that the stationing of troops meant no harm.

Indonesia’s concerns are not limited only within the political leadership, but include the military, media and academic community. Some sections have viewed it as being China-centric with the potential of setting in motion an arms race in the region. Marty Natalegawa referred to two possibilities – the impending Sino-US rivalry and subsequent militarisation and escalation of insecurity in the region. The deployment may be construed by China as its containment and push China towards greater military modernisation. Such a situation may destabilise the already unstable region characterised by multiple rivalries and hostilities.

His statement also gestured growing unwillingness within the ASEAN on taking sides and avoiding subsequent polarisation. An unstable strategic atmosphere could hamper the economic growth prospects and stall the process of community building and greater integration within ASEAN. China remains, perhaps, the most important driver of economic growth in the region. On the other hand, the US is an economy-in-crisis, thereby offering limited prospect for growth.

The above may not assist with two important objectives of Indonesia - consolidation of democracy and sustained economic growth. The Indonesian leadership during the last one year has been laying stress on the pursuit of its economic diplomacy and greater access to the emerging market. Nearly 60 per cent of the agreements signed by Indonesia in 2011 focused on economic diplomacy. Echoing similar sentiments at the Shangri La dialogue in June 2012, the Indonesian President emphasised on ‘geopolitics of cooperation’ rather than rivalry.

For Indonesia, the opaqueness surrounding the US strategy has caused disquiet. It is believed that the real American intent is not known. The inability to fully understand the rationale and implications of the US military move has raised suspicions within the region.

The Australian Connection
Even though Indonesia may be able to digest the American military presence in the region, it is the Australian military profile that seems to have generated disquiet in Jakarta. The Indonesian military reportedly expressed concern over the presence of the American and Australia naval forces in the proximity of its territorial waters. The distance between Darwin and Indonesia is 450 nautical miles. Moreover, Indonesia remains jittery with the possibility of its eastern maritime space being exposed to the Australia-US combine and any potential threat to its interests and resources in the Timor Sea. The Australian defence forces played a critical role in the cessation of East Timor from Indonesia and the formation of Timor Leste as an independent nation-state, and still maintain its presence in the country. Australia’s strong influence in the Papua New Guinea that borders Indonesia’s insurgency-infested province of West Papua and prevailing public support in Australia for the West Papuan secessionists have been sore issues in Indonesia-Australia relations.

The selection of Darwin, instead of other Australian cities, as the venue of the bilateral summit between the Indonesian President and the Australian Prime Minister during the first week of July 2012 has brought forth the underlying connection between the dynamics of Indonesia-Australia relations and the deployment of the American troops at Darwin as a part of the Pivot to Asia policy. Though opinion remains divided whether the Darwin summit implied Indonesian endorsement of the American deployment or the former’s ambivalence, it is clear that Indonesia successfully introduced Darwin deployment as an agenda of Indonesia-Australia strategic dialogue, and Australian recognition of Indonesia’s concurrence in Australia’s strategic manoeuvring in the maritime space that connects Canberra and Jakarta. The inclusion of Indonesian defence forces in future military exercises of the US and Australia attempts to address the Indonesian concerns. Indonesia seems to have emerged out of its exclusion from the deliberation between the US and Australia, ensuring Australia does not ignore Indonesia’s concerns.

Finally, as Indonesia emerges a rising power and consolidates its political and economic foundations, it has begun to pursue more actively the ‘free and active’ policy, one of its cardinal foreign policy principles. The leadership realises that the best situation for Indonesia is to benefit from the advantages offered by both the worlds. Besides its focus on developing its international image and consolidating the democratic foundations, Jakarta suddenly find its priorities shifting, driven by new-evolving power configurations.