Compared to Vietnam and the Philippines, Indonesia’s strategic ties with the United States have been lacklustre. Indonesia’s latest elevation of its relationship with the United States to a comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP) did not significantly change the depth of the countries’ relationship.
When Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo visited US President Joe Biden in the White House on 13 November 2023, the two leaders were confident the CSP would begin a new era of US–Indonesia relations. But the depth and breadth of current relations do not reflect that of a CSP. Without substantial economic and security cooperation following the deal, this CSP is symbolic at best.
From a US perspective, the CSP provides a shortcut to building the United States’ image as a committed partner without providing adequate economic and diplomatic engagement with Indonesia. The CSP sends a message that the United States remains a committed partner. This is despite the shortcomings of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as Biden’s primary economic initiative and his absence from the Indonesia-chaired ASEAN summits.
But it is ignorant to think that a mere symbol is enough to make a partnership truly comprehensive and strategic. Compared to other Indonesian CSPs, the CSP with the United States is still lacking in many areas, particularly economic and security relations.
The geoeconomic significance of a CSP lies in the alignment of private sectors with CSP goals. With separate deals from major companies — including Amkor, Intel and Nvidia — the US–Vietnam CSP solidified Hanoi’s strategic position as a US ‘friendshoring’ destination for the semiconductor supply chain.
In contrast, the CSP with Indonesia was not preceded or followed by substantial deals from key US business players, particularly on critical technology and minerals. The CSP only involves ExxonMobil and Chevron for developing Indonesia’s decarbonisation capacity.
The United States might have made its biggest contribution to Indonesia’s trade surplus yet at US$1.11 billion in 2022. But unlike China, Australia and Japan, the United States’ absence from any bilateral or multilateral free trade agreement with Indonesia makes US economic engagement suboptimal. Existing trade barriers will make the realisation of key CSP programs challenging, including diversification of semiconductor supply chains, the Just Energy Transition Partnership and the possibility of a critical mineral agreement.
The push for the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment in the CSP is also not substantiated. According to the Lowy Institute’s Southeast Asia Aid Map, the United States is falling behind as a development partner for Indonesia. Cumulative development finance from the United States between 2015–2021 was only US$1.89 billion. China and Japan gave US$15.1 billion and US$6.15 billion respectively in aid in the same period.
Despite recognising Indonesia’s geopolitical importance through a CSP, the United States does not prioritise Indonesia as a strategic partner in the region. This is evident in the United States’ clear preference to work with Vietnam and the Philippines — often at the expense of ASEAN.
The United States has conducted 12 security dialogues with Vietnam, has had a maritime agreement since 2007 and has held dozens of naval drills since 2010. Likewise, the United States’ renewed alliance with the Philippines has been followed up with frequent joint bilateral naval exercises, such as Sama Sama and Balikatan. There have also been a number of minilateral exercises involving Australia and Japan.
The most blatant US snub was when Biden skipped the ASEAN, US–ASEAN and East Asia Summit meetings in Jakarta while heading to Vietnam for a separate bilateral visit in September. Biden has only set foot in Indonesia once during the G20 Bali Summit while Jokowi has visited the United States four times throughout his presidency.
Maritime security has become another weak area. While the CSP contains a commitment to more comprehensive maritime security cooperation, the United States lacks a framework to implement the agreement. Currently the most significant bilateral military exercise is Garuda Shield, which only involves the land forces of both countries. The maritime domain is now the primary domain for regional security in the Indo-Pacific, which makes joint naval exercises critical.
Other promises are also falling behind, such as the US plan to fund naval base construction on Natuna Island. The project was planned to begin in 2016. But there have been no significant bilateral talks regarding the project’s progress, including at the latest bilateral meeting.
This CSP’s lack of depth is not entirely the United States’ fault. Compared to Vietnam and the Philippines, differences in how Indonesia perceives regional threats like China and regional values like nonalignment leave the CSP stuck at the symbolic level.
While it is entirely Indonesia’s choice to be nonaligned, the United States’ preference for a closer relationship with the Philippines and Vietnam indicates that its relationship with Indonesia can be better cultivated.
Under its often frustrating balancing act, Indonesia might not offer the best bet for US strategy in the region. But it is precisely for that reason that the US–Indonesia CSP is needed. Indonesia and the United States must go beyond mere symbolism if they want their partnership to be truly comprehensive and strategic.
Arrizal Jaknanihan is a Master of International Relations student at The Australian National University. He formerly served as an Analytics Partnership Officer at the Ministry of National Development Planning/Bappenas, Republic of Indonesia.
Alfin Febrian Basundoro is a Master of Strategic Studies student at The Australian National University. He formerly served as a staff member at the Indonesia–China High-level Dialogue and Cooperation Mechanism Secretariat.