As America entertained itself with the vital questions of whether Hillary Clinton’s temporary absence from the campaign trail due to pneumonia constituted a character issue (it didn’t), or whether Donald Trump finally admitting that Barack Obama was born in America meant that the “birther” conspiracies he spun against the President for the past five years were just one long racist lie (it did), Russia and China came together to conduct the single largest joint maritime military exercise between the two nations – ever.
The fact that they did so in the hotly disputed waters of the South China Sea was just the latest evidence that whomever occupies the Oval Office next January is going to face a rapidly growing danger in Asia. That fear was compounded when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced during the Sino-Russian wargames that his country would no longer take part in joint naval patrols with the United States. While not as inflammatory as his appalling statement two days earlier that Obama was “the son of a whore” – an unconscionable thing for any world leader to say about another, let alone the leader of an ally responsible for 75 percent of all Philippines arms imports since 1950 – his reasoning for the severance was more damning: “China is now in power and they have military superiority across the region.”
When Trump or Clinton becomes president next year and considers how to reassert American power in the region, the most important face looking back will be that of an unassuming man who started working in his family’s furniture shop at 12, was evicted from his home on three occasions, and was best known just four years ago as the mayor of a city the size of Cleveland. In truth, Joko Widodo, known here as Jokowi, was as unlikely a candidate to be elected President of Indonesia – which he was, in2014 – as there’s ever been.
Yet there is no nation in southeast Asia better positioned to provide the counter-weight to China and Russia that America needs in the South China Sea than the world’s fourth-most populous country, one that’s not only strategically located in the region butgrowing economically in ways that will increase its ability to assert its interests. And there is no nation in the world that provides a more powerful example in this era of global extremism and instability than the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy which, at 250 million strong, proves every day that democracy and Islam can not only co-exist, but thrive.
If the story of the Obama years was about America’s supposed pivot to Asia – which critics say is sinking—the story of the next eight years needs to be America’s pivot to Indonesia. And after two years of false starts and concerns about his leadership, Jokowi is ready for his close up. And not a moment too soon.
As we were starkly reminded last week by China and Russia’s seventh joint naval exercises since 2005, tensions are rising in the South China Sea, and Indonesia is right in the thick of it. The trouble started in 2010, when Beijing, trumpeting a widely debunked 1953 map that laid claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea as Chinese territory, declared “indisputable sovereignty” over the same territory.
That came as news to the five other nations, including Indonesia, which the international community has long recognized as the owners of the land and water being claimed by China today. But that hasn’t stopped China from throwing its considerable weight around the past six years, constructing oil platforms, boarding ships, and, most ominously, seizing islands claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines – on which it has put up buildings, constructed airstrips and huge aircraft hangars, and deployed military planes and other armaments.
In July, an international tribunal in the Hague rejected China’s claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea – through which half of the world’s nautical trade passes – ruling in favor of the Philippines in a maritime dispute. China has responded with more bluster, vowing that it will “never stop” construction while all but daring the international community to force it to leave. And “it’s not hard to understand why,” a journalist here tells me. “More than half of China’s reserves go through the South China Sea. It’s a weak spot and it’s vital that they have control.”
China also continues to build up its coast guard and fishing fleets, which is where Indonesia directly enters the fray. Over the past five years, there have been a number of clashes between Chinese fishing vessels and the Indonesian navy over the Indonesia-owned Natuna islands, which China now also claims. As one journalistrecently observed, “Beijing uses these fishing ships as a kind of militia to harass and block other nation’s vessels from accessing the vital trade routes and fishing grounds.”
Indonesians have had enough. Beginning in late 2014, led by Jokowi and Fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti, this island nation has taken the extraordinary step of blowing up more than 220 seized fishing vessels in public events that have sent an unmistakable message to Beijing. In June, to reinforce that show of strength, Jokowi made a high-profile visit to the Natunas.
“Taking sides on the South China Sea issue is not something we traditionally do,” a respected editor says to me. “We won’t take the U.S. side on this. But we may lean.” However, a well-connected consultant confides that “Jokowi recently told (me) in a private meeting that he is now ready to face South China Sea issues. He is interested in China now and being assertive.”
It fits with other moves the President has made that reflect a growing strength. Dismissed in 2014 as an inexperienced puppet for the leader of his party, the former President Megawati Sukarnoputri – memorialized in the Wall Street Journal headline,“Mega’s Message to Jokowi: I’m the Boss” – Jokowi was criticized for rubber-stamping controversial allies of Megawati’s for his cabinet. That, too, is changing. He recentlybrought back Sri Mulyani, a bold reformer whom Jokowi had exiled to the World Bank for ruffling feathers, as finance minister. He also appointed a widely respected police chief and shuffled a powerful gatekeeper to a different post.
“Jokowi is frustrated and needs good people to assert authority,” says a well-placed confidante to the President, who adds that Jokowi’s profile began to change when he built a stronger relationship with the military a year ago. “He is tired of this political drama that has been going on since he became president. He is consolidating power.”
It’s a moment tailor-made for the U.S. to strengthen relations with Jakarta. How? Three ways.
First, our next President should visit Indonesia as soon as possible, and make clear: while Obama’s focus was on expanding alliances with Japan and Korea, facilitating change in Myanmar, and improving relations with Vietnam and India, the top priority for the next four years is Indonesia. That’s especially important for Clinton, whose time as Obama’s Secretary of State left people here “skeptical of her” one insider confides. A substantive presidential visit would bolster her standing and signal that the U.S. is serious about pivoting to Indonesia.
Second, the U.S. should support Indonesia’s emerging assertiveness on South China Sea issues. That includes offering Indonesia more maritime capabilities so that it can stand up for itself at sea – including, modernized Coast Guard vessels and training. Former Minister of Defense Juwono Sudarsono believes this is something Trump would do, expressing confidence “Trump will win and he will change.”
Finally, the next Administration must articulate a creative strategy for our economic relationship that contrasts with China’s strategy of “exploit and extract.” There is a fear here that Indonesia’s growing dependence on China – it recently ranked 10th in aForbes list of the “Top 10 China-Dependent Countries” – could compromise its assertiveness on the South China Sea. U.S. economic and business-to-business engagement should offer a vision that empowers, instead of extracts from, Indonesia. That means investing in education and development, supporting innovation and entrepreneurship, and giving Jakarta an alternative to China in its race to improve its gridlocked economy. It also means finding a way to make the proposed trade pact between the U.S. and 11 Pacific rim nations, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership—which is projected to bring $26 billion in trade to Indonesia—work.
Lastly, no matter who wins in November, there is one thing the next President should do: invite Jokowi to visit and work to secure an invitation for him to address Congress. The last, and only, time an Indonesian leader spoke to Congress was in 1956 – when Trump was nine, Clinton was eight, and Jokowi was five years from being born. Sixty years is too long. It’s time to bring the relationship between the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy into the 21st Century—no matter who sits in the Oval Office.
Stanley A. Weiss, a global mining executive and founder of Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, has been widely published on domestic and international issues for three decades. His memoir, “Being Dead is Bad for Business”, will be published by Disruption Books in February, 2017.