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03.10.2013 Author: Vladimir Odintsov

Indonesia and the US-China Rivalry Washington’s foreign policy strategy has clearly emphasized strengthening its position in Southeast Asia, according to many Western experts. The policy of unipolar hegemony in the Asian region, which Washington has sought in recent years, has come to a standstill, faced with the growing influence of new competitors and, above all, Beijing. China’s rapid growth over the past fifteen years has shaken U.S. influence in the region, where the U.S. has been firmly rooted since the end of World War II. Today, the U.S. dominates the region militarily with numerous bases in Okinawa, Guam, South Korea and the U.S. 7th Fleet in Yokosuka. In addition to this, the U.S. dominates economically through ARES. However, despite this, Washington has had to constantly consolidate its opposition to the growth of traditional influence in the region, not only to Japan and South Korea, but also China, the economic impact of which has increasingly spread to the countries of Southeast Asia. 

In such circumstances, the Asian archipelago, still viewed as a crossroads between the Indian Ocean, the China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, has become the key point of the US-China confrontation in Southeast Asia due to a combination of internal and external factors. At the same time, China strengthens its influence on the bordering seas and uses its economic leverage against Taipei. In this context, Indonesia has taken on a previously unbeknownst significance on the political and geo-economic scene, increasingly becoming the focal point of the Asian policy of Washington and Beijing. It is very significant that Indonesia after a 1955 conference in Bandung was a symbol of nonalignment, and it is now becoming the new goal of the United States and China, vying for domination and seeking to join the country closer to their allies. 

In recent years, Indonesia has become a very active foreign economic player. Despite recent economic difficulties due to its transition to being an oil importer in 2004 and subsequently having to withdraw from OPEC in 2008, Indonesia has a population of 280 million people, recently having shown strong economic growth (more than 6 % per year). Yet Indonesia is rather economically underdeveloped with regard to technical equipment and could become the Asian Eldorado for Western and Chinese enterprises in many areas of industry: transport, energy, engineering, etc. 

This country is important for both China and the United States. As the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), it is an important part of the economic zone of the China Sea and the Indian Ocean with the Malacca, Makassar and the Sunda straits belonging to this country. Because the energy sector in the U.S. is largely based on natural gas, Washington is also interested in developing relations with the world’s largest LNG producer. 

Yet the territorial and ethnic fragmentation of Indonesia implies considerable difficulty in understanding and penetrating the country. After experiencing many different periods of domination in the South China Sea, today’s Indonesia is, above all, heir to XIX-century Dutch East India. Viewed in this light, the country has strong centrifugal tendencies, which led to war in East Timor in 1999. These same trends, exacerbated by the fragmentation of the country in the archipelago, account for the main weakness of the state, which is exploited by China to weaken Jakarta’s opposition through China’s toying with the local minority populations. 

Like most of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, Indonesia is dependent militarily on Washington and specifically on the American Military Regional Command USPACOM. It has entered into agreements on defence with the United States, having allowed the latter to use an Indonesian military bases since 2010. Such agreements have formed the basis of US-Indonesian cooperation on maritime security in the straits since 2011. Yet the fight against piracy is a mere pretext for an extensive programme of military-technical cooperation, with the opportunity for Indonesia to purchase F16 Aircrafts as a check to Chinese military ambitions in the region, particularly in Burma. 

Even U.S. President Barack Obama, who visited the archipelago in 2010, personally joined the efforts to strengthen the “special” relations between Washington and Jakarta, stressing repeatedly during this visit his “fond memories of spending his childhood years in this country,” praising the Indonesian model of development as “a perfect example of the integrative process.”

 Washington’s return in recent years to a strategy of seduction in relation to Indonesia demonstrates the U.S. desire to develop relations with a country, which could become a serious competitor to China in the region. A member of ASEAN, Indonesia is well integrated into regional structures and has sufficient human and economic potential, more so than many others in this south Asian association. The development by the U.S. of ties with the Philippines and its Pacific allies, as well as simultaneous strengthening of its relations with Indonesia certainly can, according to some Western experts, greatly hinder the ambitions of expanding Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean. China is really trying to become a major player in global security, not only in their bordering waters, but also beyond them, where the Bab-el-Mandeb piracy problem provides it with a good opportunity to position itself in an area stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea. However, the U.S. undermines the strategy of deploying the Chinese Navy near its shores with the positioning of a line of U.S. bases in South Korea, Japan and Guam. From this perspective, the race for influence in Indonesia would be decisive for the transformation (or not) of China into the category of a global security player from a strictly regional one. 

Vladimir Odintsov, political commentator, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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