Now is the perfect time for Washington and its allies to woo Indonesia. The goal should not be to peel Indonesia away from China but to support Mr. Joko’s plans for economic and social development — he is looking to cement his legacy before he’s due to step down in 2024 — and help the country become an alternative pole of strength to challenge the emerging sense in Asia that China alone holds the keys to the region’s future.
So far, Washington has shown limited ambition for boosting the relationship with Indonesia. Despite warnings over Beijing’s growing strategic leverage with Jakarta, it has yet to come up with significant economic counterweights.
But closer relations with China don’t mean that Mr. Joko is choosing a side in great-power competition. Rather, he is approaching foreign policy with the practicality of the furniture factory owner and mayor he used to be, willing to work with whoever can help him meet core objectives — like boosting the economy.
Kurt Campbell, who leads Indo-Pacific policy in the White House, once told me that if you ranked the countries most important to the United States but least understood, Indonesia would be first. The world’s fourth-most-populous nation, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation and the world’s largest archipelago nation: Generating interest in Indonesia usually requires a list of superlatives.
Between domestic issues and a long list of foreign policy challenges to address, it seems that Indonesia is falling off the agenda again, even as the Biden administration starts to step up in Southeast Asia. The president’s interim national security strategic guidance, released in March, name-checked Singapore and Vietnam, which support U.S. pushback against China, as important Southeast Asian partners, but not Indonesia.
When Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made separate trips to Southeast Asia earlier this year, they skipped Indonesia — which The Jakarta Post, the country’s leading English language newspaper, called a “snub.”
The good news is that Mr. Joko does not bear grudges. While writing his first English-language political biography, I watched him work with all comers to get what he wants, from street hawkers to billionaires to hard-line Islamist preachers.