Indonesia is among the vital partners of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, known to be the world’s third-largest democratic country, the seventh-largest economy by purchasing power, and a venerable leader in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It is also situated on the borders of the renowned South China Sea, which is recognized as one of the world’s busiest sea lanes that welcomes thousands of cargo ships and oil tanker vessels annually.
Over 70 Years of Partnership
Like its neighboring ASEAN countries, Indonesia had gone through colonization under the rule of the Netherlands, earning its former name as the Dutch East Indies, until 1945—when it finally declared independence. Before its liberty, the Japanese briefly occupied the country from 1942-1945 during World War II, and when it finally established its sovereignty, the US was one of the first countries to have successfully forged diplomatic relations with Indonesia.
Since then, both countries have expanded their relations by strengthening their people-to-people ties, and the strategic partnership has been seamless over the years, especially with both sharing the same values, including the fundamental belief in democracy and the protection of human rights.
The rising tension caused by the dispute in the South China Sea has pushed Jakarta and Washington to refine their bilateral military cooperation, particularly against their shared concerns with China. For years, both countries have been pursuing significant partnerships in military relations, including the US forces helping train and educate Indonesian troops through military exercises such as the latest and largest-ever Garuda Shield in September.
The annual bilateral training event was conducted between the Indonesian Army and the US Army, dubbed as the Super Garuda Shield, which features tons of “firsts,” including the first-ever tri-lateral airborne jump among the United States, Indonesia, and Japan, the US Embassy reported. The military drill aims to boost its participants’ defense capabilities in order to keep and maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Australia, Singapore, and Japan Ground Self Defense force all joined the 16th Garuda Shield for the first time, while recurring participants Canada, France, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and the United Kingdom were all present alongside Indonesia and the US. This is just one of the many joint military exercises Jakarta and Washington held to upkeep its military cooperation evergreen.
Cracks on the US-Indonesia Relations
In 2010, the US lifted the ban on the Indonesian special operations forces Kopassus, who in the 1990s were barred from receiving assistance and training from Washington due to massive human rights abuses. After several long, scrutinizing talks, the military cooperation was finally reinstated in the late 2010s, with the US reassuring efforts to improve and renew the tarnished reputation of the Indonesian forces. However, some observers and human rights advocates highlighted Jakarta’s lackluster in addressing the matter, let alone punishing and holding those involved in the past abuse incidents accountable. During then-US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Indonesia in 2018, he “suggested that the Kopassus be reformed and remove abusive personnel from its ranks.”
Kopassus has been accused by many non-government organizations and Western politicians in the 1990s to early 2000s of human violations in addition to the association with illegal economic activities such as illegal mining and drug trade. Because of these, several international partners severed ties with the Indonesian military, including the US and Australia.
The Obama administration has established a clearer status on the standing of the military relations between Jakarta and Washinton through the Joint Statement on Comprehensive Defense Cooperation forged by the Indonesian Ministry of Defense and the US Department of Defense in 2015. Here then-presidents from both countries at this period agreed on the commitment to “deepening collaboration in areas such as: maritime cooperation, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, defense joint research and development, countering transnational threats, and military professionalization.” Moreover, the US has also recognized the vital role of Indonesia in peacekeeping efforts in the region, considering it to be sitting on the border of a very important trade waterway.
Another issue that caused a minor crack in the relationship between Indonesia and the US was back in 2020 when the Trump administration pressured Jakarta from dropping its arms deal with Russia and China when it announced its plans to purchase Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and naval vessels from the respective countries.
For years, the US has been a major supplier of Indonesia in terms of military hardware consisting of aircraft, firearms, and electronics. Past transactions include the sale of Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopters and the F-16 Fighting Falcon. According to the US Department of State, as of 2021, “the US has $1.88 billion in active government-to-government sales with the Indo-Pacific giant under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system.” Last month, Indonesia successfully received the green light from the US to purchase the Boeing F-15 Advanced Eagle combat aircraft for $13.9 billion, replacing Jakarta’s aging Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30.
Despite the minor bumps, Indonesia continues to be one of the vital partners of the US in the Indo-Pacific region and has only been improving with its common interest in democracy, economic growth, and security, particularly in recent years with the rising tensions between superpowers. It is important to note, however, that although the US and Indonesia have this mutual partnership, the latter also has a political relationship with China, which in recent years grew closer because of the personal relationship between Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
For the US to maintain its tight-knit relations with the Indo-Pacific giant, it has to make sure it would counterbalance the political influence of China.