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Issues and Insights Vol. 15, No. 9 – Maritime Fulcrum: A New U.S. Opportunity to Engage Indonesia

Following decades of U.S. under-engagement with Indonesia, President Joko Widodo’s Global Maritime Fulcrum Doctrine provides Washington with new opportunity to prioritize its strategic relationship with Jakarta. Markets and geopolitics of the 21st century will revolve around the maritime domain, and Indonesia is uniquely positioned to play a leading role in the Indo-Asia-Pacific Rim. The Indonesian archipelago’s maritime trade routes and its position near the volatile South China Sea ensure Jakarta’s role will be center stage for any geopolitical challenge in Southeast Asia. As the U.S. rebalances to the Indo-Asia-Pacific, Washington should devote resources to account for Indonesia’s rising importance. A closer U.S.-Indonesian partnership would bring significant political, economic, and security benefits to both nations. In these three domains Washington ought to focus its efforts to build a U.S.-Indonesian relationship that underpins international trade and stability in the region. Failure to embrace current opportunities would be a regrettable strategic error for U.S. policymakers.

Indonesia, home to over 250-million people and the third-largest democracy on earth, is also the world’s most neglected titan.

At the geopolitical nexus of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and with territory protruding into the South China Sea, Indonesia demands U.S. attention more than ever. Washington should significantly deepen its partnership with this strategically located nation with a rapidly expanding economy. It should do so before crisis in the surrounding area necessitates hasty action. Washington has failed to make Jakarta a top priority in its revitalized focus on the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and the major shortcomings of the contemporary U.S.-Indonesia relationship suggest the need for a full-frontal engagement strategy – diplomatically, economically, and militarily. President Widodo’s intent to transform Indonesia into a Global Maritime Fulcrum (Poros Maritim Dunia) provides new opportunity for such engagement. Such U.S. initiative will not guarantee an immediate strategic success. Indeed, U.S. diplomats and policymakers will need to overcome significant barriers to include memories of U.S. support for Indonesian separatist movements during the Cold War, elements of anti-U.S. nationalist and Islamist popular sentiment, and concerns that working more closely with international partners endangers Indonesia’s “Active and Free” foreign policy.1 However, such challenges should not deter the United States from an Indo-Asia-Pacific rebalance that prioritizes engagement with Indonesia.