With its national interests spread all around the globe, it is almost impossible for the United States to be indifferent about the eventuality of general elections anywhere in the world, especially in those places where strategic interests are at stake. When the US ambassador to Indonesia, Robert O. Blake, was asked a few months ago how the US would respond to the presidential elections here, he said that his country would respect the choice of the Indonesian people.
Recently, people got surprised because the ambassador made an explicit statement in an e-mail to The Wall Street Journal, saying that his government was concerned about allegations of human rights abuses and urged the Indonesian government to fully investigate the claims. Such a statement was perceived to be an indirect rejection of Prabowo Subianto and a tacit endorsement of Joko Widodo. What may have led the US envoy to give a hint about candidate of preference?
US foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific under President Barack Obama has been very much characterized by a combination of an aggressive economic policy to take advantage of the rise of the middle class in this region and the consolidation of bilateral relationships with its traditional allies in order to counterbalance the spread of the so-called Beijing Consensus. China has always been ready to provide huge economic assistance in order to allure developing countries in Asia into its sphere of influence. For instance, in 2012 under China’s pressure Cambodia was forced to prevent the Asean Summit from criticizing its unilateral claims of territories in South China Sea. Recently, China has also forced its way to set up oil rigs in a disputed part of the South China Sea.
It goes without saying that over the last decade, under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia has served as a strategic partner for the US in many respects. The success of Indonesia’s democratic consolidation, with its political stability and its constructive role in the region, have made Washington feel comfortable. The Americans want the continuity of this state of affairs under the next administration.
It is quite evident that the US government wants to make sure that the new president is not going to introduce new economic regulations that might jeopardize American business interests in this country. Considering the fact that Indonesia has a good prospect of economic growth in the coming years, the US will continue to persuade Jakarta to join a high-standard trade pact called Trans-Pacific Partnership, which may serve as the main US vehicle to increase its economic appropriation in the Asia Pacific.
Thus, the most important question for the US is: which of these two presidential hopefuls will provide the highest likelihood that Yudhoyono’s friendly policies towards foreign corporations will be continued?
Despite the fact that both the presidential hopefuls emphasize the importance of economic independence in their vision and mission, over the last few days Prabowo has tended to speak in a tone of economic nationalism that can be interpreted as being unfriendly towards the presence of major foreign corporations in Indonesia. There is an implicit accusation that they have overexploited Indonesian natural resources and destroyed the natural and social environment along the way. On top of that, the fact that Prabowo once told the American investigative journalist Allan Nairn that he was in favor of “a benign authoritarian regime” has created a legitimate suspicion that he might not be really democratic at heart.
Although Joko has his own brand of economic nationalism, there are at least two reasons why he appears to be more acceptable to the US and the global market in general.
First, unlike Prabowo, who has a troubled track record related to past human rights violations, with his trouble-free background Joko is more likely to revitalize Indonesia’s democracy by adding the most desired element of good governance. By combining a robust democracy and good governance, foreign investors will be more certain about their profits and legal protection.
Second, the US government will surely welcome one important element in Joko’s foreign policy by which he wants to propose Indonesia’s expanded role in the wider Indo-Pacific region. Indonesia’s positive contribution to the stability of the region may counterbalance China’s increasing tendency to curb freedom of navigation both in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
If the above analysis about the US government’s standpoint regarding Indonesia’s presidential election is valid, then the ambassador’s e-mail message is more than just a normative complaint about past human rights violations.
Aleksius Jemadu is dean of the School of Government and Global Affairs at Universitas Pelita Harapan, Karawaci.