Commentary / World

U.S. better keep an eye on Indonesia

by Philip Bowring

The Globalist

Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Seattle, Washington and New York generated the usual acreage of reporting and commentary in American media.

But did anyone take notice of Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo when he visited Washington last week? One has to wonder. For sure, foreign presidential visits to the United States come thick and fast this time of year. But are U.S. politicians, policymakers and media so myopic that they fail to give due importance to the largest nation in Southeast Asia?

Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country with a secular constitution and a democratic political process. It is the world’s largest archipelagic country — within which are some of the world’s most important straits, Melaka, Makassar, Sunda — all of these easily choked arteries of global commerce for 2,000 years.

This nation of 250 million is the heartland of a larger Malay world that includes the Philippines and Malaysia — both countries subject to China’s expansionist claims in the South China Sea, claims that overlap with the gas fields off Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. Taking Indonesia seriously is at least as logical and consequential as the long-accepted imperative to take Japan seriously.

The U.S. claims to be refocusing on Asia. Some progress has been evident, including in the naval presence and the recent signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Links with India have improved notably since Narendra Modi became prime minister. Yet Indonesia gets scant attention, despite its key strategic and political position. This is despite Jokowi’s willingness to turn back the economic nationalists in his own administration, which is not easy given the de-centralization of power in Indonesia.

Jokowi has indicated that Indonesia could join the TPP in two years. He has also agreed upon a long-argued new deal with U.S.-owned Freeport McMoran for a $16 billion investment in its existing gold and copper mine in Papua. This is a big number by any measure. He has made other efforts to remove nationalist obstacles to foreign investment, many of which are in place less for ideological reasons than as rewards for rent-seeking politicians and bureaucrats.

If you know anything about Indonesia’s history as an independent nation, you would know that these are not small accomplishments. They are signals that Indonesia — for all its nationalism and determination to appear neutral in big-power conflicts, tropes that date to the vigorously anti-American stance Sukarno eventually adopted — wants American attention. But he seems unlikely to get it.

The Chinese president’s U.S. tour was a reminder that discourses about Asia in the West are completely dominated by academics and assorted pundits. These pundits claim expertise on China and forget the Southeast Asian neighbors who share a population of 600 million. In their universe, the U.S. and China are the only two countries that matter — the rival hegemons for whom the other nations are simply pawns.

This is perhaps not surprising, given the widespread neglect of Southeast Asian studies in Western universities.

In Britain, for example, Cambridge University’s Asian studies faculty has 12 people devoted to China studies and none to Southeast Asia, let alone the wider Malay world and its 400 million people. Things aren’t too different in America. Then there’s Australia, which is highly dependent on commodity exports to China. Thus, the conversation, too, tilts in favor of China.

The view is that as China is on its way up and U.S. on its way down, sooner or later America’s allies will fall away and China will assume its supposedly natural position as the hegemon of Asia.

This argument combines a weak grasp of Asian history with apparent contempt for the interests of other Asian states.

Case in point. Jokowi recently emphasized the fact that Indonesia is a maritime nation that must defend its waters, then proceeded to capture and destroy foreign vessels fishing illegally while spending to beef up a very tiny navy.

In consequence, he was accused of unseemly nationalism by Australia. Yet, it is this sense of national and broader Malay identity in Indonesia, as in the Philippines, that the U.S. should encourage. Taking Jokowi and his country more seriously during his imminent state visit is one way to do that.

History matters, too, and it is not on China’s side — its absurd claims over the South China Sea notwithstanding.

Times have changed and the demographics have reversed. Today, China is aging, polluted and its institutionalized racism has exposed its land frontiers, notably Xinjiang and Tibet, to sustained turmoil.

China’s supposed past domination of the maritime region via “tributary” states is largely a myth peddled by China experts in the West who piously believe annals written long ago to please Chinese emperors.

Tributes were mostly a matter of trade interests on the Southeast Asian side and empty but grandiose “submissions” to appeal to imperial vanity.

The one brief occasion when China sought to impose itself on the maritime zone to the south was in the early 15th century. The voyages of Zheng He’s heavily militarized fleets around the South China Sea and Indian Ocean achieved “awe” but little else.

The West mostly swallows Beijing’s untrue claim that Zheng He was a peace-loving envoy, but almost none remember that China’s only attempt to enforce its claimed suzerainty over island Southeast Asia ended with the humiliation of Kublai Khan’s forces in Java in 1293.

The relative decline of the U.S. doesn’t mean China replaces it. It means that China faces not the ring of states lined up in a faltering American attempt to stem Chinese influence — the current Chinese theory of encirclement — but the independent states of varying degrees of power.

These may not love each other, but they have no interest in being any more subservient to China than did their predecessors.

This lack of understanding of history may explain how, at the urging of a foreign ministry stuffed with China experts, U.K. humiliated itself with the extraordinary political and economic kowtow to Xi Jinping, just witnessed in London. That drew derision even in Berlin and Paris.

Jokowi matters to the U.S. not just because Indonesia has economic, let alone military power, but also because it has long rewarded investors more generously than China.

The U.S. needs to treat the unassuming Jokowi with the attention due to his country.

It is vital to U.S. interests in Asia, not to mention the wider issues of sustaining pluralism and tolerance in a mostly Muslim nation. Indonesia has many reasons to distrust China and is afflicted neither by a rapidly aging population, nor unnatural gender imbalances, nor an excessive birth rate.

Indonesia still needs to be flattered other than by Beijing bearing multibillion dollar Trojan horse gifts or ethnic Chinese businesses with no sense of loyalty to their adopted country and with commercial interests in the mainland to protect. If the U.S. wishes to remain a global power, it must work a lot harder at relations with the world’s fourth-most populous nation — and one that shares far more with it than does Leninist/Confucian/racist/expansionist China.

Philip Bowring is a journalist who has been based in Asia since 1973 and is a resident of Hong Kong. © The Globalist 2015