US Rapprochement with Indonesia: From Problem State to Partner

By Murphy, Ann Marie | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2010 | Go to article overview

US Rapprochement with Indonesia: From Problem State to Partner


Murphy, Ann Marie, Contemporary Southeast Asia


US relations with Indonesia have undergone a dramatic rapprochement such that today officials in both countries claim relations are the best they have ever been. Only a decade ago, Washington viewed Indonesia as a problem state. At that time Indonesia was in the midst of wrenching political and economic crises following the downfall of President Soeharto in 1998, a year in which its economy contracted by 13.8 per cent. As Indonesia began its reformasi or democratic reforms, sectarian and separatist violence erupted in parts of the country. Following East Timor's vote for independence in 1999, the Indonesian military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia or TNI) and its militia allies unleashed an orgy of violence. The 2002 Bali bombings, perpetrated by the Southeast Asian militant group and Al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), raised concerns that Indonesia might become a sanctuary for terrorists. At the dawn of the millennium, many in Washington feared that Indonesia would become another Yugoslavia: a country long held together by authoritarian rule that would fracture along ethnic and religious lines to become a failed state and threat to regional stability. (1)

Instead, Indonesia overcame its challenges. Post-New Order governments restored macroeconomic stability and the Indonesian economy is forecast to expand by 6 per cent in 2010 despite the global economic slowdown. (2) An historic agreement in 2005 following the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami on 26 December 2004 brought peace to Aceh; sectarian violence has declined dramatically; and Indonesia has adopted a strong counter-terrorism policy. Indonesia embarked on a messy but ultimately successful transition to democracy that refutes the proposition that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Today, Indonesia is viewed as a success story in Washington and as a linchpin of regional stability.

America's rapprochement with Indonesia has been driven by an appreciation of the latter's domestic achievements and its potential to be a partner on global issues. It began in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombings and gathered momentum as Indonesia developed an effective counter-terrorism capability while consolidating democracy, a feat no other country has achieved. (3) At a time when the Bush Doctrine advocated democracy as an antidote to terrorism, the Indonesian experience appeared to vindicate the logic of US policy. Under the Obama administration, policy towards Indonesia has been driven not only by shared democratic values and interests, but also by recognition that Indonesia is an emerging power that will play an increasingly influential role in global governance. For Jakarta, rapprochement not only brings concrete benefits and good relations with the world's predominant power, but also helps Indonesia in its quest to raise its international profile.

This article proceeds as follows. First, it discusses US interests in Indonesia and argues that US policy towards Indonesia has always been driven by Washington's overarching strategic doctrine. Second, it provides a brief historical review of US-Indonesian relations to illustrate that patterns of conflict and cooperation in the relationship are driven by the congruence between US grand strategy and Indonesian domestic politics and foreign policy. Third, it examines bilateral conflicts in the early reformasi era to demonstrate the chasm that had developed between the two countries. Fourth, the article examines the rapprochement between the US and Indonesia to date, and assesses the prospects for a further strengthening of relations. The article concludes by arguing that the Comprehensive Partnership the two sides seek to build illustrates the tremendous opportunities to strengthen relations further, but a series of obstacles may prevent the relationship from reaching its full potential.

Patterns of Cooperation and Conflict in US-Indonesian Relations

Distance and a lack of traditional ties mean that US interests in Indonesia are largely strategic. …

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