Indonesia’s efforts to make the peace in post-coup Myanmar aren’t just about showing Southeast Asian solidarity, they are a way of showcasing Jakarta’s democratic credentials to the new administration in the United States , experts say. The coup by the Myanmar military against the democratically elected National League for Democracy party led by Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1 is just the latest in a string of issues to have threatened unity in the 10 member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) bloc. The bloc has also found itself in the middle of a multi-country power struggle, with China , the US, India and Japan all vying for influence in the region, said Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller, a research fellow for Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Policy Futures in Australia. 10 Myanmar protesters killed as Quad leaders vow to restore democracy “By asserting leadership and agency, Jakarta is attempting to keep Naypyidaw firmly in the Asean camp to avoid the country sliding further under Beijing’s influence,” Nabbs-Keller said. “Indonesia’s desire to settle the dispute within Asean, with reference to democratic principles and good governance enshrined in the Asean Charter, meanwhile, is genuinely expressed but also a way to burnish its democratic credentials with the Biden administration.” Analysts said that Indonesia understood that US President Joe Biden was putting alliances at the forefront of Washington’s foreign policies and that this stance had been underlined by the return of Kurt Campbell, the architect of former US President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’. “Kurt Campbell represents a familiar and steady hand in Indonesia-US relations. His appointment was a welcome development in Indonesia’s diplomatic circles,” Nabbs-Keller said. The veteran diplomat, who was also the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under Hillary Clinton from 2009 to 2013, is now the Indo-Pacific coordinator on the National Security Council. With up to 20 members, Campbell’s team occupies the largest regional NSC directorate, highlighting Biden’s focus on engaging Asian allies to contain China’s rising assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. “I think Indonesia understands that with the Joe Biden administration there will be more of an expectation that Asean plays a leading role in the region and Indonesia plays a leading role within Asean,” said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow on Southeast Asian politics at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank. “You’re beginning to see Indonesia step up to reflect that, partly because it wanted to demonstrate to the Biden administration that Asean is an organisation worth engaging and perhaps if Asean can do something useful on Myanmar, then the US will also listen to Asean more when it comes to US-China relations and issues that are of strategic importance to Asean.” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has been engaging in shuttle diplomacy in recent weeks, visiting the current Asean chair Brunei as well as Singapore and Thailand to seek their support for a meeting of Asean foreign ministers. She has also met Myanmar’s junta-appointed foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, and conveyed Indonesia’s concerns about the developments in Myanmar and emphasised the need for all Asean member states to adhere to the Asean Charter. Retno has also talked to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and her counterparts in India, Japan, Australia, the European Union, and Britain, among others. “Indonesia hopes for support from both the US and China on Myanmar issues and it hopes that the issues will not be used to sharpen the rivalries between the US and China,” said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, foreign policy expert with Jakarta-based Indonesian Institute of Sciences. STRATEGIC INTERESTS For Indonesia, support from China and the US are needed not only to solve the turmoil in Myanmar, but also for its own strategic interests. Indonesia has enjoyed more than 70 years of bilateral relationships with both major powers, made possible by its bebas aktif (‘free and active’), foreign policy, in which the world’s third largest democracy aims to befriend all nations while also playing an active role in maintaining world peace, security, and stability. For Indonesia, boosting ties with Washington remained significant as US foreign policy would “affect Indonesia, directly or indirectly”, said Thomas Noto Suoneto, a researcher at the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia. “We see the movement of the Quad in the region, we see the movement of the US in the South China Sea issue. So the peace and stability in the region is affected and influenced by the US,” he said. The Quad, made up of the US, India, Australia and Japan, is a group of major democracies that have been strengthening security ties as a counter to China’s increasing influence in the region. “It’s also about economics,” continued Suoneto. “We see how [tensions and the] trade war between the US and China have reshaped the economic direction of the countries in the region including Indonesia, so basically there are consequences for Indonesia if the US is not on board in fulfilling Indonesia’s strategic interests.” Connelly said Indonesia could boost ties with the US if it remained active in preserving regional stability, something that Indonesia had done in recent weeks by rallying fellow Asean members to help resolve Myanmar’s issues. “If we see Indonesia continue the type of diplomacy that we’ve seen over the last two weeks, where it is really emphasising the ‘active’ part of ‘free and active’ foreign policy, I expect the US would begin to pay a lot more attention to Indonesia’s foreign policy and begin to be much more solicitous of Indonesian interests and concerns than it has been over the last seven years,” Connelly said. Indonesia, however, sees the importance of diversifying its strategic partners beyond the US. It has in recent years forged partnerships with countries such as South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto has travelled to at least eight countries, including Turkey, China, Japan, Russia, and France, to strengthen the country’s list of defence partners. Indonesia’s Myanmar activism has achieved little except US and China agreement Prabowo also visited the US in October 2020 to meet his then-counterpart Mark Esper, marking the end of two decades in which the former special forces general had been denied a visa due to claims he was involved in rights abuses during the reign of the dictator Suharto. Prabowo’s move “should be imitated by other Indonesian ministries”, Suoneto said. “For the past few decades Indonesia really thought that without the US it could not have improvement in some sectors, whether that was economics, technology, or, most crucially, defence, but actually it has so many potential partners that it can work with,” said Suoneto. He added that Indonesia had a stronger economic relationship with China than the US. Suoneto said Biden should try to improve his personal relationship with Indonesian President Joko Widodo , whose relationship with Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump was described by analysts as “transactional”. AREAS OF COOPERATION The Widodo administration probably wanted to improve cooperation with the US in four areas: infrastructure development, trade, development of human capital, and health care, Suoneto said. Meanwhile, according to Nabbs-Keller, the US was probably most interested in defence, democracy, and economic cooperation. On infrastructure and trade with Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, Beijing has the upper hand on Washington. China was the second largest foreign investor in Indonesia last year with a total realised investment of US$4.8 billion. The US ranked eighth with US$749.9 million. The US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen this week called Indonesia’s Finance Minister Sri Mulyani. Yellen expressed Washington’s intention to expand ties with Indonesia, help with its economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and work together on addressing climate change , Reuters reported. Myanmar coup: Indonesia rallies Asean partners, US and China for solution Trade between Indonesia and the US last year totalled around US$27.2 billion, compared to US$71.4 billion between Indonesia and China, the country’s largest trading partner, according to Indonesia’s trade ministry. Washington’s extension last year of Indonesia’s access to a preferential tariff agreement, set under the Generalised System of Preferences programme, was “recognition of Indonesia’s strategic importance but the US knows it needs to do much more in Southeast Asia to compete with China’s expansive trade and infrastructure engagement,” Nabbs-Keller said. However, the US has a more advanced defence relationship with Indonesia. Government-to-government sales of defence equipment have hit US$1.88 billion, with aircraft, firearms and electronics among the most commonly traded items, according to the US Department of State. Last year, Indonesia received US$14 million in military financing and more than US$2.3 million in military education and training funds from the US. “The bilateral defence relationship is a critical pillar of Indonesia-US relations and an area where China simply cannot compete with Washington for influence,” Nabbs-Keller said.