The Jakarta Game

Written by: Nils Peterson

As the United States completed its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Indo-Pacific began to loom ever larger in American geopolitical strategy. War is a two-sided game, however, and military conflict with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda will not end simply because the United States took its ball and went home from Afghanistan. In the Indo-Pacific, extremist violence in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, remains held in check. The United States should work to aggravate warming Sino-Indonesian ties while simultaneously withholding steadfast military support for the archipelago nation.

Indonesia’s location makes the nation of vital geostrategic importance. Ships wishing to go from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean pass through Indonesian waters to reach the Straits of Malacca. This vital geopolitical strait controls billions of dollars in commerce every year and gives Indonesia substantial economic leverage in the region. Most importantly, it is China’s gateway for trade to the Indian Ocean. The pandemic led Indonesia to further foster economic ties with Beijing to the tune of a roughly 50 percent increase in bilateral trade in the first six months of 2021. These warming ties between the two nations should concern the United States regarding its own commercial interests in the region. Beijing welcomes these increasing trade ties as it sees Indonesia as one of the key locations in its Belt and Road Initiative. There remains some skepticism, however, in Indonesia about Chinese intentions in the region, particularly regarding Chinese island-building in the South China Sea. With that body of water just north of its border, Indonesia would surely be wary of a militarily assertive China in South-East Asia. In the event of a US-China military confrontation in the Asia-Pacific, Indonesia could be the kingmaker, due to the control of her ocean sea lanes, if she decides not to stay neutral.

While countering the threat of increased Sino-Indonesia cooperation, the United States must not become closely militarily tied with Indonesia. The Indonesian military justice system rarely convicts its notoriously violent soldiers of human rights abuses. After twenty years of the War on Terror and the implementation of torture at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the United States can not afford to shoot itself in the foot again by closely cooperating with flagrant human rights abusers like the Indonesian military. Instead, the United States should continue to press the value of open sea trade lanes crucial to Indonesian economic prosperity. Maintaining a strong naval presence in the Asia-Pacific will also be crucial to demonstrating the ability of the United States to act as a strong partner if the Chinese do not increase its military activity in the region.

The United States must increase the attention it pays to the world’s largest majority Muslim country. Indonesia’s geopolitical location makes it important to United States national security interests. If we fail to dampen Sino-Indonesian ties then the United States will find itself in the unenviable position of having a non-friendly power controlling crucial sea lanes in South East Asia.