President Joe Biden’s May trip to Northeast Asia rightly received extensive media coverage. By contrast, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s June journey to Southeast Asia has received much less.
Too bad. Asia has enormous strategic importance. President Richard Nixon deserves special credit for achieving direct U.S. ties with China.
Singapore, a main Austin stop, hosted the 19th in a series of conferences there sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Established in 1958 by the Ford Foundation, IISS is respected for providing reliable information on military developments worldwide, plus in-depth analyses of international security and strategic challenges
China’s defense minister also attended the conference, along with leaders from the Indo-Pacific region. Early this month, President Biden hosted a U.S. ASEAN (Association of Southeast Nations) meeting in Washington, D.C.
In Singapore, Austin met with Indonesia Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto. A fortunate meeting, because that nation provides powerful evidence regarding Asia’s future course.
Indonesia held the largest one-day free elections in the world in April 2019. President Joko Widodo enjoyed re-election for a second term by a majority.
In 2018, a Gallup Poll found that an unprecedented 75% of Indonesians believed elections are honest. This is the highest percentage ever, in a long-term upward trend in public confidence, following a troubled national history.
Gruesome earlier events provide graphic, important context. In May 2018, the Islamic State conducted bloody terrorist attacks in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city.
Terrorism is persistent though not frequent in Indonesia. In a 2016 attack, four people died. In 2002, the worst attack killed 202 people on Bali, including many foreign tourists.
Indonesia’s election took place in the world’s largest nation with a Muslim majority. Trade routes and commodities provide Indonesia with great strategic significance.
Washington has the opportunity to highlight Indonesia, and neighboring nations, as success stories of expanding political stability, modernization and the rule of law. In 1998, opponents forced Indonesia’s long-time autocratic president and former general Muhammad Suharto from power. Since then, the nation has had representative government.
Indonesia’s international conflicts today are largely technical and legal, notably the maritime disputes that involve the nations of East and Southeast Asia. Dictatorship has ended, though corruption remains a problem.
During the height of the Cold War, Indonesia enjoyed status as a pivotal power among Third World nations. Flamboyant nationalist President Sukarno played the Soviet Union and the United States off against one another. CIA efforts to bring Sukarno down were frustrated, and boomeranged.
During the 1960s, cooperation between Indonesia and the Soviet Union expanded exponentially. This development, vital in the massive U.S. military intervention in Vietnam in 1965, is rarely mentioned today.
British forces, with Australian and New Zealand allies, defeated Indonesian attacks on Malaysia. Earlier, Britain defeated an aggressive, virulent Communist insurgency in Malaya, which today is part of Malaysia.
Britain’s military avoided massive firepower, in contrast to the U.S. in Vietnam, especially from 1965. To be sure, the British military employed air strikes and artillery, but relatively selectively. Officials rightly regarded heavy bombing as counterproductive. Given American preferences for firepower and technology, we should keep this fundamental lesson always in mind.
With today’s firm foundation, the United States has promising opportunities. Stronger Indonesia ties can leverage influence and investment throughout the enormous Asia regions. Meanwhile, our veterans, especially of the Vietnam War, should feel pride in this long-term success.
We can continue that success if we demonstrate discipline — and maturity.