April 19, 2017 8:20 pm JST
Searight and Shearer

Pence shows why Southeast Asia counts, for US and the world

After reassuring North Asian allies, US vice president flags interests elsewhere in the region

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence leaves the podium after a lecture for Japan-U.S. business leaders at a hotel in Tokyo on April 19. He will arrive in Indonesia April 20.

While the potential for crisis on the Korean Peninsula is dominating the first visit to Asia by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, his stop in Jakarta on Wednesday is also important for America's long-term interests in the region as a whole. The visit comes as Southeast Asia anxiously awaits a signal from the Donald Trump administration that the U.S. will not neglect the region, even as it focuses on major challenges in the Middle East and Europe as well as in North Asia.

Both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations increased American engagement with Southeast Asia. Pence's visit to Indonesia is an opportunity to build on that foundation. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, but also a successful secular democracy that has earned a reputation for religious tolerance. It is also the traditional leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the 10-member grouping that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and prides itself on playing a central role in promoting regional cooperation and stability.

For the Trump administration, Pence's Jakarta visit provides a valuable platform to convey some key messages to Indonesia and, more broadly, to Southeast Asia. First, the vice president can clear up the region's lingering misapprehensions about the administration's attitude toward Muslims, following the White House executive order issued in its first days restricting travel from a number of Islamic countries. The directive did not include any Southeast Asian countries but was nevertheless poorly received in Indonesia (as well as in neighboring Malaysia, also a Muslim-majority country).

Indonesia's Vice President Jusuf Kalla charged that the travel ban would cast "suspicion" on all Muslims, and the public reaction in Indonesia was sharply negative. As well as expressing support for Indonesia's remarkable transformation to a secular democracy, Pence could relay a message of respect and appreciation for religious diversity and Muslim culture. Coming on the heels of the just concluded run-off vote for Jakarta governor, Pence will need to tread carefully on religious issues - particularly in light of the recent controversy which has seen blasphemy charges against the incumbent Christian governor of Jakarta and mass protests that caused Widodo to defer a planned visit to Australia. In private meetings with Indonesian leaders, Pence should canvass the continuing threat posed by terrorism and discuss how the U.S. can most effectively support local counter-terrorism efforts. But public hectoring on this sensitive subject would be counterproductive.

Economic priorities

Second, Pence can deliver a strong message about U.S. economic leadership. Indonesia is one of the world's largest and fastest-growing economies, with a burgeoning middle class and a young, dynamic and internet-savvy workforce. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a recent study found that the U.S.-Indonesia bilateral economic relationship is already worth $90 billion per year, and could rise to as much as $132 billion by 2019 under favorable conditions. Indonesia was not a signatory to the ill-fated Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, but President Joko Widodo (or Jokowi, as he is known) has made enhanced trade and investment linkages a priority.

He signaled Indonesia's interest in joining the U.S.-led trade agreement during his visit to Washington in late 2015 and has been seeking trade agreements with partners like the EU to help tackle the endemic trade barriers and bureaucratic red tape that continue to hinder Indonesia from reaching its full economic potential. Widodo is also looking for international partners to meet Indonesia's pressing demand for infrastructure and energy as it modernizes. He is courting China and other countries in this effort, but the U.S. is well placed to play an important part in meeting Indonesia's future infrastructure and energy needs -- including in concert with regional allies such as Australia and Japan.

Third, Pence's planned visit to the ASEAN Secretariat, which is headquartered in Jakarta, is an opportunity to convey the Trump administration's support for a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific region, and for ASEAN's role in fostering regional stability, economic integration and a benign security environment. ASEAN plays a key organizing role in the region by convening the major players through its political and security dialogues. Voicing U.S. support for ASEAN's central organizing role in the region does not cost anything and would pay off for the Trump administration in shoring up relations throughout Southeast Asia. Officials in Jakarta (and elsewhere in the region) will be anxious for confirmation from Pence that Trump plans to attend the Hanoi summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November and the East Asia Summit in Manila the following month.

Finally, Indonesia and the U.S. share vital maritime interests, including freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in the region. Jakarta seeks to avoid taking public positions on territorial disputes in the South China Sea centered on China's claims. But Indonesian officials are increasingly concerned about rising tensions in the region, China's claim to waters overlapping Indonesia's economic exclusion zone around the Natuna Islands, and the depredations of illegal Chinese fishing vessels. Widodo's "maritime fulcrum" vision remains more an aspiration than a concrete plan, but the U.S. vice president could ask how Washington can support his ambitious effort to increase connectivity between the more than 17,000 islands forming his archipelagic nation.

As the reformist former governor of Indiana, Mike Pence is ideally suited to engage the Indonesian president on these issues. Widodo rose to prominence as the popular mayor of a small regional city before being elected governor of Jakarta, and then Indonesia's president. As a former mayor and governor, he was known as a pragmatic problem-solver, a politician who walked the streets of Jakarta daily to listen to the concerns of residents and find practical solutions to their problems.

Their similar backgrounds should provide the ideal basis for a meeting of minds on practical matters of governance. Pence has the opportunity to strike a personal rapport with the leader of one of Asia's most consequential countries, to listen to his priorities, and to position the U.S. to advance important economic, security and diplomatic interests in a region that will play an increasingly important role in the future.

Amy Searight is director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for south and Southeast Asia. Andrew Shearer is senior adviser on Asia Pacific Security at CSIS and director of a new CSIS project on Alliances and American leadership. He was formerly national security adviser to Australian prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott.

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