By Murray Hiebert & Conor Cronin
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of Indonesia made his first official visit to the United States on October 26 and 27. Jokowi, who was elected in 2014 in an atmosphere of optimism, has struggled to live up to high expectations in the midst of an economic downturn and tanking rupiah currency. Much of his attention has necessarily been focused on domestic and economic issues rather than regional and international relations.
Q1: What did presidents Obama and Jokowi focus on in their meeting?
A1: The two presidents spoke at length about ways to step up cooperation between their two countries. One of the topics covered included increased collaboration on maritime issues. This broad category incorporates security, science, fishing resources, environment, and human trafficking, making the subject a top priority for the Indonesian president. They also discussed intensified bilateral defense cooperation, covering peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance missions as well as U.S. support to professionalize and modernize the Indonesian military, including help in building a coast guard to protect the country’s 18,000 islands. Indonesia is also looking for U.S. help to increase maritime domain awareness as China becomes more assertive in the South China Sea and to increase its knowledge about pirates operating around its thousands of islands.
Jokowi and Obama also talked about energy and resource management, including several multimillion dollar U.S. investments to support development of clean energy, promotion of economic growth, and foreign investment between the two nations. Other topics the two presidents focused on included climate change, capacity building in cyberspace, and violent extremism. Indonesia has about 400 citizens fighting with Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria and another roughly 3,000 IS sympathizers. The two presidents also upgraded the 2010 comprehensive partnership into a “strategic partnership.”
Q2: What is the significance of the strategic partnership?
A2: It is unclear exactly what the new strategic partnership will entail. Apart from the establishment of ministerial strategic dialogues led by the U.S. secretary of state and Indonesian foreign minister, the announcement about the partnership was light on details. The significance of the change from comprehensive to strategic may well lie in the progress the two countries have made in bolstering their ties during the past five years. The revised name also suggests that both Indonesia and U.S. leaders recognize the growing value of their partnership. Jakarta, which religiously seeks to balance its relations between Washington and Beijing, may have wanted to rename the U.S. partnership to reflect that in 2013 it had upgraded its relations with China to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Both the comprehensive partnership with the United States and the comprehensive strategic partnership with China were negotiated under previous Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Q3: What is the significance of Jokowi announcing that he plans for Indonesia to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
A3: Indonesia has long been one of the most nationalist economies in Southeast Asia, so Jokowi’s announcement surprised Washington. Speaking at a U.S.-Indonesia investment summit an hour or two before Jokowi’s meeting with Obama, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman told the audience of Indonesian cabinet ministers and senior officials and U.S. and Indonesian business representatives that Jakarta’s protectionist policies, which include a long negative list of sectors from which foreign companies are excluded and stiff local content requirements, were hurting Indonesia’s economy.
Jokowi suggested that joining the TPP will help him tackle longstanding protectionist tendencies in Indonesia’s economy. In a speech at a Washington think tank, Jokowi cast his TPP decision into his larger effort to reform the economy and “free up the private sector, including both domestic and foreign” companies. Alluding to the five deregulation packages he has launched in recent weeks, Jokowi said “deregulation of policies is something we shall…continue for as long as it takes.” The Indonesian president said Obama was “a little surprised” when he announced his plans to join the TPP.
Indonesia will face increased competition from Vietnam and Malaysia, two members of the TPP, when the trade agreement goes into force and provides lower tariffs and increased market access for participants of the trade pact. Nonetheless, Jokowi will face considerable pushback from domestic companies if he proposes opening up the economy to U.S, Japanese, Australian, and Singaporean traders and investors.
Q4: What can we expect from the partnership going forward?
A4: Jokowi flew directly home from Washington, skipping his scheduled visit to Silicon Valley and meetings with top technology executives. Jokowi was hurrying home to tackle the mounting crisis caused by widespread forest fires in Indonesia that have spread a choking smog across much of maritime Southeast Asia. As part of the United States’ efforts to support health and disaster responses in Indonesia, the U.S. Agency for International Development is contributing a $2.75 million assistance package that will help health care centers respond to haze-related respiratory illnesses and support firefighting crews with equipment.
President Obama and President Widodo will meet again in less than a month at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in Manila and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Kuala Lumpur in mid-November. The EAS focuses on security issues, which means one of the major topics of discussion will be tensions in the South China Sea. In their meeting, Obama and Jokowi agreed on the need for a multilateral, rules-based approach to resolving disputes peacefully in the contested region. In his public think tank speech, Jokowi said it was high time that China and ASEAN completed negotiations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea which has languished in years of talks.
Mr. Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @MurrayHiebert1. Mr. Conor Cronin is a research associate with the Sumitro Chair.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.