US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi speak to members of the media after a bilateral meeting at Department of State in Washington, on 3 August, 2021. (Photo: Jose Luis MAGANA / AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi speak to members of the media after a bilateral meeting at Department of State in Washington, on 3 August, 2021. (Photo: Jose Luis MAGANA / AFP)

Retno Goes to Washington: Indonesia Sticks to ‘Free and Active’ Foreign Policy

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Washington has played up its growing relationship with Jakarta. For the latter, it is all about what Jakarta can get from the closer ties, and balancing its position within the Sino-US relationship.

Last month, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi paid an official visit to Washington at the invitation of her American counterpart Antony Blinken. Ostensibly, Washington wanted to frame the 1-3 August visit in the context of Washington’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) strategy, which is seen by some as a way to counter China in the region.  

Retno assented to Washington’s Indo-Pacific framing, as seen in a 3 August readout by the US State Department, which alluded to the US-Indonesia Strategic Partnership and its contribution to a ‘secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific’ based on a ‘fundamental belief’ in democracy, innovation-driven economic growth and a rules-based international order (one should note that the readout did not address the challenge posed by China to such an order). Yet, she managed to achieve two key goals from her trip: securing US vaccine supplies critical to Indonesia’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and maintaining Jakarta’s agency and independence as it continues to exercise its ‘free and active’ (bebas aktif) foreign policy in a time of increased Sino-US rivalry.

Retno’s foremost agenda in the US was on vaccines and related assistance for handling the pandemic. During the visit, Jakarta gained more aid from Washington in the form of vaccines and Covid-19-related assistance. As of August, it had received a total of US$77 million in aid and 8 million doses of US Moderna vaccines together with 1,000 ventilators. 

Another deliverable that Retno secured from the United States was the 2021 iteration of the long-running Garuda Shield series of Indonesia-US military exercises which were started in 2009. The 2021 edition, which was conducted from 1-14 August, involved about 4,500 military personnel from the two countries, and coincided with the Indonesian foreign minister’s visit to the US. It underscored that fact that Indonesia’s foreign policy is based on strong security ties with Washington and deep economic ties with China. 

Despite the forward momentum in Indonesia-US ties, Jakarta has avoided taking sides between China and the US, and has only worked with Washington on bilateral issues that further Indonesia’s national interests.

A good illustration of Indonesia’s continued pursuit of its quintessential ‘free and active’ policy was Retno’s bid to get both Chinese and American technology to produce vaccines in-country. Retno had contacted vaccine manufacturers in the US, hoping that Washington would agree to cooperate with Jakarta in developing the Covid-19 vaccines. But it is too early to tell if Washington would eventually want to develop a vaccine production centre in Indonesia. At the same time, Jakarta approached Beijing for a similar deal. But it was disappointed when Beijing only agreed to supply half-finished products and use Indonesia as a clinical trial country. The pandemic has unleashed nationalistic sentiment in both superpowers. In an indirect swipe at China, the US has argued that its vaccines are highly-effective ‘medical miracles’ which are provided free of charge to countries.

Despite the forward momentum in Indonesia-US ties, Jakarta has avoided taking sides between China and the US, and has only worked with Washington on bilateral issues that further Indonesia’s national interests. Indonesia does not publicly support the US’ FOIP strategy, which is seen as a sophisticated strategy to contain China. Indonesia was the pioneer of the ASEAN Outlook of the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), which is more accommodating of integrating China into the wider region. The AOIP position, which has been accepted by ASEAN members, effectively establishes equidistance between the US’ FOIP strategy and China. 

It is intriguing that both Indonesia and the US took what they wanted from Retno’s US visit, as evidenced in their respective readouts. According to the American statement, Indonesia and the US ‘expressed shared views on maritime security’. They had committed to ‘working together in the fight against the global pandemic, fighting the climate crisis, boosting bilateral trade and economic ties, defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and continuing collaboration in cybersecurity and preventing cybercrime.’ The South China Sea has increasingly become a bone of contention between China and the US, and the term ‘maritime security’ is often used as an indirect reference to China’s island-building in the area, which the US deems a challenge to freedom of navigation.

The statement by the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that this was the ‘first meeting of strategic dialogue’ between the foreign ministers of the US and Indonesia, and that Retno was the first ASEAN foreign minister to be received by the Biden administration (implying Indonesia’s titular leadership role in ASEAN). It also stated that Indonesia welcomed America’s bid to enhance its engagement in Southeast Asia. It recognised the US as one of the important partners to implement the AOIP (the US has not mentioned such a thing). 

The differing Indonesian and American readouts from the same visit again illustrate how Indonesia has become increasingly adept at getting what it wants from the US as well as China. President Joko Widodo’s critics accuse him of being too close to China. Such views, however, are incorrect. Jakarta has sought to pursue ties with both superpowers in pursuit of its national interests. The US is still the second-largest destination for Indonesian exports. Jakarta has a Comprehensive Partnership with Washington which was upgraded to a Strategic Partnership in 2015. Beijing is the largest trading partner of Jakarta and the second-largest investor in Indonesia. It has a Strategic Partnership with Jakarta in 2005 which was upgraded to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2013.  During the Covid-19 pandemic, China’s vaccine diplomacy towards Southeast Asia in general and towards Indonesia, in particular, was far ahead of the US. In May-June this year, Indonesia accepted Chinese help in salvaging a sunken submarine.

In the end, China and Washington would want to stress their growing relationship with Jakarta. But Indonesia has stuck to a steady course, milking its ties with both superpowers for what they are worth. 

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