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The Relevance of the US-Presidential Election for Indonesia: A Pre-Election Analysis (Part 1)

For Indonesia, the outcome of the American presidential election in November 2012 will be of great importance. This article will outline the most important contemporary matters of interest in the Indonesian-American relationship from a pre-election perspective.

On November 6th 2012, the people of the USA will either grant President Barack Obama a second term in office or they will make Governor Mitt Romney the new president of the US. This election is of special relevance to Indonesia as the two candidates have very different perspectives on how American foreign policy of the near future should be. This article is the first of two installments on the relevance of the US presidential elections from Indonesia’s viewpoint. Prior to the election, it outlines the recent bilateral context and the most important contemporary matters of interest in the Indonesian-American relationship. After the elections, a second article will answer the question of how Indonesia perceives the outcome and the future respective candidate’s foreign policy plans.

Naturally, during the presidential race, neither Pacific Asia nor Indonesia are specific topics in US public discourse. However, to hear almost nothing in the three presidential debates about the conflicts in the region that the Obama administration called a cornerstone in the new future American foreign policy is more than surprising. “Pressing issues”, such as the change in leadership in China, unresolved Chinese territorial conflicts with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and the potential nuclear threat posed by North Korea, “went unmentioned”, as the New York Times observed following the third presidential debate. These issues are all of major importance to the US and they could also have huge impacts on Indonesia.

Translated into the Indonesian perspective, two are of particular relevance. The first is the general economic, strategic and military role of the US in Southeast Asia, which is closely related to the rise of China. The second is US policies towards Islam and the global Muslim community. The latter is especially relevant, since Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s most populous country, home to more Muslims than any other country in the world. However, following the Bali bombings of 2002, the Indonesian government became an important US ally in the “global war on terror”. Then again, with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed that the number of Indonesians viewing the USA favorably dropped from two thirds to 15%, with now 83% of the population viewing the US in a negative light. This changed drastically when President Obama came into office. In 2008 more than half of Indonesians once again had a favorable opinion of the US and believed thatbecause he had lived in Indonesia, Obama would consider the country’s interest in his foreign policy decisions. In fact, shortly after the president’s inauguration in 2008, the Obama administration proclaimed a shift of focus in the American foreign policy toward Asia and especially toward the Asia Pacific region. This policy was underlined by soft symbolic actions in the form of visits of President Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region, but also by hard power shows like the stationing of US marines in Darwin, Australia. The latter is a problematic issue, as the Indonesian public views the country as on the one side being one of the potentially most powerful Southeast Asian states. On the other hand, since Cold War times, Indonesia has been constantly afraid of becoming the pawn of superpowers, a situation Franklin B. Weinstein described as being a “pretty girl in a hostile world”.

Thus, as concerns political rhethoric, two expressions have been most relevant in Indonesian politics, both meaning that Indonesia should avoid alliances, “staying free” (bebas aktif), and the more metaphorical one “rowing between the reefs” (mendayung antara dua karang). It is thus why the Indonesian public reacted very negatively upon the stationing of the US troops in Darwin. The fear was expressed that China, as the other big player in the region, would regard this as an offensive act and would respondin a similar manner. In his initial reaction, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, perceived this as a development from which Indonesia could only suffer. Furthermore, since China and the US are both major trading partners with Indonesia, a standoff between these two powers could damage the country’s rising economy. Thus, while Obama personally is seen very positively, especially as compared to George Bush Jr., US foreign policy is still regarded with skepticism in Indonesia, 66% of Indonesians stick to their opinion that the American and NATO troops should be removed from Afghanistan.

So far, the Obama administration has shown no signs of changing its foreign policy concerning the matters at hand. If Obama stays in office, it can be presumed that the American foreign policy stances will not change dramatically over the next four years. On the other hand, while the major American news networks could not agree on how to evaluate the candidates’ respective plans, they were of the opinion that if Mitt Romney became president, US foreign policy would be subject to fundamental changes. Given that during his campaign one of Governor Romney’s most often voiced statements about his foreign policy plans was his conviction that the US needs to take a much harder stance toward Russia, but most of all China and the “Muslim world” than the Obama administration has done so far, it is very likely that with Romney as president the American-Indonesian relation would be subject to drastic changes. As mentioned above, it is especially of relevance for Indonesia, how the respective American president will react to the rising China. On his official homepage, Mitt Romney argues for a course that discourages the Chinese leadership to “intimidate or dominate neighboring states” and to “establish itself as the preponderant power in the Western Pacific”. To accomplish this aim, it is his plan to further “expand the US naval presence”, while resuming the supply of weapons and military technology to closest allies. Indubitably, China itself views neither candidate’s future foreign policy plans positively, as the People’s Daily, one of the Communist Party’s own major mouthpieces, concluded. Nonetheless, although Governor Romney’s homepage also clearly states that it is not his aim to establish an anti-China coalition, judging from the majority of Romney’s statements during his campaign and under the premise that his plans are implemented, it must be assumed that as president, he would respond to Chinese ambitions in an even harder way than the Obama administration did.

It can be surmised that a more aggressive US foreign policy in Southeast Asia, geared to a containment of Chinese influence, would worsen China-US relations, which in turn would lead to a loss of foreign policy options for Indonesia. Ultimately Indonesia could be forced to choose between the US and China in order to protect its political and economic security. This is what Indonesia has been trying to avoid ever since its independence. In the worst case scenario,Indonesia could find itself in a situation similar to Cold War times when the US tried to contain the influence of the USSR. As with the stationing of American troops in Australia, Indonesia would simply have to accept future moves and tensions between China and the US.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.