U.S. President Joe Biden and Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced a new comprehensive strategic partnership when the two leaders met at the White House on November 13. The Indonesian leader, popularly known as Jokowi, said he hoped the partnership will “contribute to regional and global peace and prosperity.” The White House meeting took place ahead of Biden’s highly anticipated meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco on November 15. However, Jokowi’s call for the United States to do more to end the war in the Gaza Strip dominated the headlines coming out of the meeting.

President Joe Biden meets with President Joko Widodo of Indonesia in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. November 13, 2023. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden meets with President Joko Widodo of Indonesia in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. November 13, 2023. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

USIP’s Brian Harding takes a closer look at Jokowi’s visit, the state of U.S.-Indonesia relations, and how the war in Gaza is affecting bilateral ties.

What are the key takeaways from the Biden-Jokowi meeting?

The Biden-Jokowi meeting was an important one for both countries, but the outcomes were thinner than befit the natural partnership between the third- and fourth-largest countries in the world. A modest list of agreements to deepen economic ties, including an agreement to pursue cooperation on critical minerals, was at the top of Jokowi’s agenda. Jokowi has consistently and unapologetically been a president laser-focused on Indonesia’s economic development and attracting foreign investment.

Jokowi’s announcement of a new Georgetown University presence in Indonesia, made during a speech at the university, has the potential to be the biggest accomplishment of the visit. Indonesia’s education sector has long been closed and Georgetown would become only the second international university with a campus in Indonesia after Monash University of Australia. A campus would have the potential to connect future policy leaders and be a platform to significantly enhance people-to-people relations, which are meager in contrast to the size of the two countries’ populations.   

President Biden sought to signal that Indonesia is a key partner for the United States in Southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific more generally, despite more attention being paid to regional partners such as Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines. In September, Biden chose to visit Vietnam to upgrade bilateral ties and sent Vice President Harris in his place to attend the East Asia Summit and U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Indonesia, a decision that still stings in Jakarta.

It will also be impossible for Indonesian officials to fail to notice that Jokowi’s program was a far less elaborate program of activities compared to recent visits by leaders such as Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, but this reflects an honest assessment that the relationship has a great deal of room to develop despite the warmth and broadly held interests from international security to values to climate change.

What is the impetus for Indonesia’s embrace of a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with the United States?

Despite failing to reach their potential, U.S.-Indonesia relations are warm, multifaceted and mutually productive. Ties have improved dramatically over the 25 years since the end of former President Suharto’s authoritarian, corrupt and violent rule and Indonesia’s subsequent emergence as a remarkably stable democracy, despite its diversity and early post-authoritarian challenges.

In 2005, the United States and Indonesia renewed military-to-military relations, and Washington eased sanctions imposed over human rights violations. Relations entered a bright new phase starting in 2009, which began the extraordinary coincidence under Barack Obama and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of having two presidents with deep familiarity with the other country, with ties in 2010 being declared a “comprehensive partnership.” Ties were further upgraded, under Indonesia’s categorization, to a “strategic partnership” in 2015.

It was important for Indonesia and the United States to further elevate ties this week to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” to signal that the United States is among Indonesia’s most important international partners. Australia, China and Japan are also “comprehensive strategic partners,” and Indonesia has extremely close ties with Southeast Asian neighbors through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in which Indonesia is the largest and most important member.

Indonesian foreign policy is rooted in nonalignment and continues to take inspiration from the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia. There is diversity within the Indonesian system, where concerns over China’s increasingly aggressive military posture are widespread, particularly in relationship to the southern reaches of the South China Sea, where China’s nine-dash line — remarkably — intersects with Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone emanating from the Natuna Islands in what Indonesia calls the North Natuna Sea. However, there is widespread agreement that China is an important economic partner and that Jakarta must deftly navigate U.S.-China rivalry to maintain close ties with both sides.

In his speech at Georgetown University, Jokowi called competition acceptable and natural but emphasized the importance of managing differences and maintaining dialogue. Indonesia has no interest in taking sides. It instead looks to prosper from ties with both Washington and Beijing while protecting its territorial interests.

How is Indonesia’s position on the war in Gaza shaping the United States’ thinking on the conflict? What role is the United States hoping Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, will play in the Middle East?

U.S. policy in the Middle East has often been a drag on U.S.-Indonesia relations, where support for a Palestinian state is ubiquitous and a rare foreign policy issue with political ramifications. Indonesian leaders are widely suspicious of Israel and U.S.-Israel relations. Twenty years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was also widely unpopular with Indonesian leaders, U.S. policy in the Middle East had begun to recede as an issue for U.S.-Indonesia relations. That Gaza was a top issue for the summit demonstrates the intersection between U.S. policy in the Middle East and its ties with Indonesia, an essential Indo-Pacific power home to one in eight Muslims in the world.

However, the timing was opportune. Biden was able to share the nuances of current U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine, including the administration’s clear support for a two-state solution. Indonesia’s voice on this matter will be consequential and communication between top U.S. and Indonesian leaders important.

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