In Indonesia, Pompeo makes last gasp push for Trump’s China agenda
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday pledged stronger support for Indonesia’s ambitious infrastructure plans and efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, as he praised Southeast Asia’s largest economy for its stance at multilateral forums on Beijing’s “unlawful” claims on the South China Sea.
“We also welcome the example Indonesia set with decisive action to safeguard its maritime sovereignty around the Natuna Islands,” he said at a joint news conference with his Indonesian counterpart, referring to Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone that borders the South China Sea.
“I’m looking forward to cooperating together in new ways to ensure maritime security and protect some of the world’s busiest trade routes,” Pompeo added.
Pompeo, who was in Jakarta as part of a five-country trip through Asia to boost ties amid escalating US-China tensions that have roiled the region, singled out Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus and its maritime claims against its smaller neighbours.
Pompeo arrived in Indonesia from the Maldives, where he announced the United States would for the first time open an embassy in the Indian Ocean archipelago, a move that reflects growing US concern about increasing Chinese influence in the region.
“The Chinese Communist Party continues its lawless and threatening behaviour,” Pompeo said in Male, just hours after accusing the party of being a “predator” during his previous stop in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo.
Responding to Pompeo’s remarks, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the secretary of state’s true intention was to “let China fall back to an era of poverty and un-development, and let the world fall into the abyss of confrontation and division”.
“This is just the biggest threat facing the world today. But regrettably, Pompeo was born in the wrong time. The trend of peace, development, cooperation and win-win in this era is irresistible,” Wang told reporters.
Like the leaders of India and Sri Lanka, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi took a more reserved tone on China, which is Indonesia’s largest trade partner and second largest foreign investor, behind neighbouring Singapore.
She maintained that Indonesia wanted a stable and peaceful sea and called for international law to prevail. While Indonesia is not a claimant to the South China Sea dispute involving China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, it has clashed with Beijing over fishing boats entering the Natunas.
Last month, Indonesian Maritime Security Agency drove out a Chinese coastguard vessel from the North Natuna Sea after a two-day verbal tussle via both vessels’ radio communication system.
“For Indonesia, the South China Sea should be maintained as a stable and peaceful sea. International laws – in particular UNCLOS 1982 – must be respected and implemented. Therefore, any claims should be based on universally recognised principles of international law including UNCLOS 1982,” Marsudi said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of The Sea, an international treaty on coastal and maritime boundaries agreed in 1982 and signed by 167 states and the European Union.
She also encouraged US businesses to invest more in Indonesia, “including for projects in the outer islands of Indonesia, such as the Natuna Islands”.
Both Marsudi and Pompeo talked about the importance of cooperation in the health sector, with Marsudi thanking the President Donald Trump administration’s health assistance programme in the pandemic.
“I thank the US government for the cooperation with Indonesia during the pandemic, including through the provision of 1,000 ventilators. I also reiterated the importance of building national and regional health resilience, as the US could play a major role to support these efforts,” she said.
Pompeo said: “We are proud to have provided roughly US$11 million in US government assistance [to Indonesia], part of the more than US$20 billion the US government has pledged throughout the world.”
Pompeo also hinted the Trump administration appreciated the recently passed Omnibus Law, a collective amendment to dozens of Indonesian laws initiated by President Joko Widodo to boost foreign investments and jobs.
“We are poised to use that American tool to promote private sector investment that could support President Widodo’s plans to spend US$327 billion on more than 250 infrastructure projects,” Pompeo said.
“And I understand that every country is looking to create wealth for its people. The private sector needs the right incentives before it could jump in. Indonesia’s reform agenda is helpful in this regard, we hope you keep taking steps to cut red tape, eliminate corruption and increase transparency.”
China has bolstered its investments in Indonesia in recent years, with the country ranked as Indonesia’s second biggest foreign investor last year, taking over US ally Japan, which sits in third place, but still trailing Singapore.
Data from Indonesia’s investment coordinating board shows China realised US$2.4 billion of its investments commitment in the January-June period this year, more than Japan’s US$1.2 billion.
René Pattiradjawane, president of the Center for Chinese Studies-Indonesia and a fellow at the EastWest Institute, said China was a more important trade partner to Indonesia than the US at the moment.
“Our total trade with China is around US$70 billion, compared to our trade with the US which is only around US$28 billion. For [Widodo’s] administration, China is also an important source of investment for infrastructure developments, despite several issues that have arisen domestically due to [some parts of the] agreed upon investments arrangement. It will be easy for Indonesia to get loans from China, compared to getting loans from the US because so many restrictions are implied,” Pattiradjawane said.
Analysts said Pompeo’s decision to visit Indonesia was a last-minute attempt to shore up support for the US within Southeast Asia. It was also an opportunity to smooth ties between the two nations after Jakarta reportedly rejected a high-level proposal by the US to allow one of its spy planes to refuel on Indonesian soil in July and August.
“It’s a good and opportune time to be able to cement the US-Indonesia relationship, especially coming off the recent visit by Indonesia’s defence minister Prabowo Subianto to the US as well. When looking to shore up US support within Southeast Asia, Indonesia is a natural choice, being the de facto leader,” said Natalie Sambhi, a PhD scholar at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.
She said the differences over the spy plane were “another element of this”. “Indonesia has never had an inclination to be able to host any kind of overt military presence of a foreign country, so I think this is an opportunity for Pompeo to smooth things over with Jakarta,” she said.
Analysts said the US would struggle to persuade Indonesia to choose sides between China and the US, or to join the Quad grouping – of the US, Japan, India, and Australia – that has publicly stated concerns about China’s rising influence in the world.
“The Trump administration is clearly seeking to strengthen relations with Indonesia as US-China competition in Southeast Asia escalates. While Indonesia is receptive to a closer security relationship with America due to China’s increasingly assertive activities in the South China Sea, there are limitations. Indonesia is proud of its non-aligned status and ‘free and active’ diplomacy. It won’t want to breach those principles by moving too close to the US or the Quad,” said Ian Storey, senior fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, who specialises in Asian security issues.
Pompeo’s second visit to Indonesia, so late in his stint as the US Secretary of State, is also seen as a show of confidence that Trump will win re-election in the US presidential election next week. He first visited the country in 2018.
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“Regardless of how much of a role the Secretary of State has actually in domestic campaigning, he’s not going to stop this kind of diplomatic role. In a way the Trump administration is signalling a sense of confidence, like ‘we’re going to continue right up to the last minute, because we expect President Trump to be there for another four years’,” Natalie of ANU said.
After a meeting with Indonesia’s president, Pompeo held a discussion with GP Ansor, the youth organisation affiliated with Nahdhlatul Ulama, the country’s – and the world’s – largest mass Muslim organisation.
“Indonesia has long been a model for prosecuting the fight against terrorism and has done so in a way that didn’t trample on civil liberties, and I urge the continuance of that approach. I also commended Indonesia’s strong example for the region in its gracious reception of the range of refugees here and to its shores,” Pompeo said at the joint press conference.
Pompeo is expected to visit Vietnam later on Thursday, an additional stop announced at the last minute. The Vietnamese government’s news website said Pompeo’s visit would mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The former war foes have enjoyed warmer relations in recent years but trade tensions have emerged lately.
The US Trade Representative confirmed in August that at Trump’s behest, it was investigating whether Vietnam had been undervaluing its dong currency and harming US commerce. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc this week called on Trump to have “a more objective assessment of the reality in Vietnam” with regards to the trade imbalance between the two countries. He said exchange rate policy was not aimed at helping exports.