On his current visit to Indonesia, Vice President Mike Pence appears likely to play a role he is quickly becoming accustomed to—the low-key, reassuring, figure who provides continuity in U.S. foreign policy. On Thursday, Pence toured Indonesia’s largest mosque, after earlier calling the country’s moderate form of Islam “an inspiration,” and met with Indonesian religious leaders from various faiths. This is just the kind of public diplomacy that would have fit right into the regional soft power strategies of the Obama or George W. Bush administrations, and Pence is, in private, likely to offer broad reassurances of the importance of the U.S.-Indonesia relationship for Washington.
But Pence’s visit comes at a time of strain in the U.S.-Indonesia relationship, which in the post-Cold War era has never been as strong as Washington’s ties with other regional partners like Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and now Vietnam. Although the two sides have signed a series of partnerships over the past eight years, often these partnerships have been filled in with little substantial progress on reducing trade barriers, fostering greater strategic cooperation, or other critical issues.
Under President Jokowi, Indonesia’s leaders remain focused—with some good reason—on domestic challenges, including a weak education system, failing physical infrastructure, entrenched poverty in parts of the country, high levels of graft, and the continuing process of political decentralization, which has been going on for nearly two decades now. Unlike his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi has not tried to aggressively promote Indonesian regional leadership. Jokowi’s attempts to enunciate a foreign policy have often been muddled, and his government also has taken a different approach to China than some other regional powers like Vietnam and Singapore. The Jokowi administration has aggressively wooed Chinese investment in infrastructure, although it has not built as close diplomatic ties to Beijing as some regional powers like Thailand. Jokowi has generally tried to avoid siding with any claimants or other major actors with interests in the South China Sea, and has focused mostly on the Natuna islands, according to a comprehensive analysis of Jokowi’s foreign policy by the Lowy Institute. This comes at a time when Vietnam and other countries are not only building up their defenses but more closely partnering with the United States.
In addition, the Jokowi administration has recently squabbled with several major U.S. investors, creating clouds of uncertainty about the U.S.-Indonesia economic relationship. A report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AmCham Indonesia, released last year, suggests that the bilateral economic relationship is worth roughly $90 billion annually. Yet in recent years Indonesia has taken an increasingly tough approach to some foreign investors, such as Google and Freeport-McMoran, a potential sign of growing economic nationalism in Indonesia.
More complications to Indonesia’s peaceful, secular, and democratic path emerged this week—challenges that Pence may have to at least acknowledge. This week, incumbent Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama lost the gubernatorial election to his leading challenger—losing by a larger margin than expected. The campaign was marked by massive rallies in Jakarta by groups that denounced the Christian governor for alleged blasphemy, and that promoted a militant version of Islam. (The governor is indeed still on trial for blasphemy.) In the New York Times, Bonar Tigor Naipospos of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, offered a relatively common viewpoint on the worrisome nature of the campaign, and the growing power of militant movements in Indonesia. “It shows to me that Islamization is deepening in society, especially in urban areas and cities,” Mr. Bonar told the Times. It’s a worry that has been building in Indonesia.