February 20, 2018—“The relationship between the United States and Indonesia has long underperformed its potential,” writes Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), in a new Council Special Report. “Instead of seeking unlikely goals,” Kurlantzick argues, “the two nations should embrace a more transactional approach,” focusing on “three discrete security goals—increasing deterrence in the South China Sea, combating militants linked to the [self-proclaimed] Islamic State, and fighting piracy and other transnational crime in Southeast Asia.”
Produced by CFR’s Center for Preventive Action, the report makes the case that “Indonesia could be a critical security partner and a larger destination for U.S. investment and trade in the next few years.”
Kurlantzick explains that a relationship with Jakarta “that achieved important goals could be an asset if Washington’s relationships with other Muslim-majority nations are threatened by shifting U.S. immigration policies. Maintaining productive ties with the country that has the world’s largest Muslim population could help U.S. officials argue that the new immigration policies are no barrier to working with Muslim-majority countries but simply a narrow effort to stop militants from entering the United States.”
Kurlantzick makes several recommendations to this end:
Upgrade bilateral cooperation on South China Sea challenges. “The United States should increase funding for International Military and Education Training program for Indonesian soldiers by at least 50 percent over the current amount of roughly $2.4 million annually.” The United States should also encourage Indonesia to conduct freedom of navigation operations with Australia and consider joint U.S.-Indonesian exercises in the South China Sea.
Bolster bilateral strategies to combat the Islamic State. The United States should help search for and vet returnees to Indonesia from Islamic State–held territory in the Middle East; consider creating a small, permanent force of police officers to lead foreign police trainings; and suggest that Indonesia join the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which would provide greater access to shared intelligence.
Crack down on piracy. A greater U.S. presence could also serve as a deterrent to Islamist militant networks, pirates, and other organized crime groups that have historically flourished in the Sulu Sea. The United States could also join air patrols that are critical for identifying pirate boats.
“While leaders in Washington and Jakarta reshape the relationship to focus on security, the two nations should also ensure that the economic relationship does not deteriorate,” writes Kurlantzick. He notes, “Any long-term U.S. economic strategy toward Southeast Asia needs to recognize that Indonesia is the largest economy in the region and the biggest untapped market for U.S. firms in Southeast Asia.”
Read the report, Keeping the U.S.-Indonesia Relationship Moving Forward, at cfr.org/IndonesiaCSR.
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