Earlier on the 14th of December, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Jakarta, Indonesia as a part of a trip around South East Asia (SEA) with the intent to outline President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategies and interest in the area.
This is Anthony Blinken’s first diplomatic trip since Joe Biden was inaugurated as US president earlier this year and is clearly an early step to gain influence in South East Asia, competing against their emerging super-power rival China. In fact, this newfound interest in South East Asia comes after Joe Biden expressed ASEAN as a ‘key-region in countering China’, and after many years of the region’s neglect by the previous Trump Administration.
Anthony Blinken would also later visit Malaysia before cancelling the rest of the trip due to a positive COVID-19 test among his entourage.
When he visited Indonesia, the Secretary of State met Indonesian President Joko Widodo as well as Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi at the Merdeka Palace but also held a speech at the University of Indonesia about the US approach to the Indo-Pacific. There, Anthony Blinken outlined the importance of strategic partnerships between the US and the Indo-Pacific, and specifically with Indonesia.
In his speech, Blinken mentioned five core elements (to the US Indo-Pacific approach). Firstly, how the US will advance a free and open Indo-Pacific (on an individual, state level, and regional level). Secondly, the United States’ desire to forge stronger connections within and beyond the (South East Asian) region. Thirdly, how the US will promote broad-based prosperity, and at President Biden’s direction, will develop a comprehensive Indo-Pacific economic framework. Fourth, the United States’ intention to build a more resilient Indo-Pacific, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic and climate crisis. Lastly, Blinken declared how the US will bolster Indo-Pacific security, and how their security approach has to evolve.
It is important to highlight the matter and manner of Secretary of State’s speech. Though it is impressive as a declaration of revitalised US interest in South East Asia, it is broad and less concrete as a declaration of a Indonesian-US partnership that is dedicated to mutual development and prosperity.
The US approach instead begins to sound more security-oriented, and mostly interested in countering what they have labelled ‘Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region’. Many of Blinken’s points allude back to ‘China’s bullying’ in the South China Sea and how their territorial sea claims have been rejected by international tribunals and break international law.
Furthermore, any of Blinken’s points about social and infrastructural development are addressed towards ASEAN as a region instead of Indonesia specifically. In all, although it is good to see the US more invested than ever in partnerships with the Indo-Pacific Region and ASEAN, the visit to Indonesia is disappointing without any concrete promises for their own partnership.
Then, when we compare the Secretary of State’s visit to Indonesia with his next destination, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, we see certain differences in language and promises.
In his visit to Kuala Lumpur on the 15th of December, Anthony Blinken met Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah at Wisma Putra and discussed US-Malaysia partnerships.
In more detail, he has promised that the US will increase foreign investment in Malaysian supply chains, accelerate Malaysia’s transition to clean energy, and even improve their cybersecurity.
Blinken elaborated that the US is working closely with Malaysia, to strengthen post-COVID economic recovery. The US is the second largest foreign investor in Malaysia, especially in its electronics sector. He further adds that the US will also seek to strengthen Malaysia’s semi-conductor supply chain.
The Secretary of State even detailed how we would meet with representatives from Malaysia’s energy sector to talk about a new program, through which the US will help raise private sector investments in Malaysia’s clean energy transition later that day.
Lastly, Anthony Blinken commented on his hopes of Malaysia utilising 5 million US Dollars from Washington to develop its cybersecurity.
The US Secretary of State’s declarations in Malaysia are different from Indonesia. Whilst he mentions concrete and measurable promises in Kuala Lumpur, Anthony Blinken’s statements in Jakarta regarding a US-Indonesia partnership remain broad and unclear. Furthermore, Anthony Blinken’s speech at Wisma Putra, Kuala Lumpur explains developments plan for Malaysia specifically. Meanwhile his speech at the University of Indonesia addressed the South East Asian region more than it addressed Indonesia at all.
More frustrating perhaps is Anthony Blinken’s focus on regional security rather than Indonesia’s socio-economic development. According to the Secretary of State, the importance of a US-Indonesia partnership is mostly promoting freedom and openness in the region, as well as Indo-Pacific security. By contrast, his points about cooperation with Indonesia itself are like footnotes.
The US approach to the Indo-Pacific in relation to Indonesia has more emphasis on balancing against an aggressive China in the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea than foreign investment in Indonesian business sectors, unlike their plans in Malaysia.
As a result, the current US approach to relations with Indonesia cannot help but be considered disappointing by Indonesia, as it is more invested in countering rivals than developing its partners.
Concrete partnerships with Indonesia and ASEAN countries which focus on their development need to be the main stage focus alongside security issues, not just a footnote or afterthought.
The US needs to balance its interests in Indonesia, between Indonesia’s socio-economic development and security. A US approach to Indonesia needs more concrete and measured action for its prosperity, comparable to what we have seen in Blinken’s visit to Malaysia
Indonesia deserves to be regarded as a nation with economic aspirations, not merely a convenient buffer against another superpower.