U.S. President Joe Biden is set to hear the views of the Muslim world on the war in Gaza during a meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the White House Monday afternoon.
Widodo is in Washington to elevate diplomatic ties to “comprehensive strategic partnership,” the highest in the country’s diplomatic ranking.
The leaders are far apart on their views of the conflict, with Biden’s unwavering support of Israel and Widodo demanding an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and supporting a United Nations commission that has been collecting evidence of war crimes allegedly committed by both sides since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.
Widodo will be meeting Biden fresh off an emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia this past weekend.
The summit brought together 57 mostly Muslim-majority states including the Arab League. Its communique rejected Israel’s justification of its actions in Gaza as self-defense and demanded an immediate end to the war. It called for a halt to the sale of arms to Israel and increased access for humanitarian aid.
Making a statement to press virtually from Washington Sunday evening, Widodo said that he will deliver the summit’s resolutions to Biden. “Israel must take responsibility for the atrocities it has committed,” he said.
President Biden will “listen carefully to what President Widodo heard and what his perspectives are with respect to discussions he’s just undertaken in Saudi Arabia and with other Arab and Middle East leaders,” a senior administration official told VOA during a briefing Sunday.
While there is a massive gap between the two on immediate calls for a cease-fire, which the United States believes at this point will only benefit Hamas, Washington is seeking a point of convergence with Jakarta further down the line. Indonesia is not a regional actor like Egypt, Jordan or Qatar with key roles in the administration’s immediate goals, such as securing the release of hostages and establishing humanitarian corridors into Gaza.
As the largest Muslim majority country, Jakarta’s voice carries clout in the administration’s medium- and long-term plans of resolving the conflict and working toward a pathway to peace. About 229 million Muslims live in Indonesia, making up 87% of the population. That’s 13% of the world’s Muslim population.
“Just peace, the two-state solution, substantial resources that will be necessary to rebuild and give hope to shattered lives. I think those are areas that we look forward to working closely with Indonesia on giving its leading role,” the official said.
Like many Muslim countries, Indonesia has long provided aid to Palestinians, including a hospital in northern Gaza. Hospital administrators told VOA that the surrounding vicinity has been hit by Israeli airstrikes and they are on the brink of collapse due to a lack of supplies and fuel.
Widodo’s official visit, which was arranged to smooth ruffled feathers after Biden skipped the ASEAN summit hosted by Indonesia in September and went to Hanoi instead, will be a delicate balancing act for Widodo.
Observers say he must speak forcefully enough to represent passions at the OIC and avoid political damage at home, where massive anti-Israel and anti-U.S. demonstrations have rocked major cities. Additionally, they say he must be careful not to jeopardize progress on a long list of common interests, including a deal on critical minerals and China’s rising ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
Critical minerals work plan
Indonesia is seeking a limited free trade agreement with the United States, similar to the one the U.S. signed with Japan in March, to include its nickel exports under the 2022 U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA. The IRA, Biden’s key climate change and clean energy legislation, offers tax incentives to boost domestic electric vehicle, or EV, manufacturing.
The bill includes provisions for consumer tax credits to purchase EVs produced with critical minerals sourced domestically or from a country that has a free trade agreement with the U.S.
Boasting the world’s largest nickel reserves – a key mineral in EV production – and aiming to be a global EV hub, Indonesia is keen on such a deal. The Biden administration, meanwhile, wants to secure a supply chain for its ambitious goal of ensuring that two-thirds of new passenger cars and a quarter of new heavy trucks sold in the United States are all electric by 2032.
The administration is seeking a process with Jakarta toward a “consequential partnership,” said the official. Washington, however, has voiced concern over Indonesia’s reliance on Chinese investment in its mining industry as well as labor and environmental issues in its mining practices.
The pair will announce a “work plan” to explore a partnership on critical minerals, said a second administration official, to “make sure that both of our systems are prepared to move forward together.” The official underscored that any agreed pathway forward must be in accordance with the “highest of labor and environmental standards.”
The plan has received pushback from some in the U.S. mining industry, which has received funding as part of the Biden administration’s efforts to boost domestic production of nickel, lithium and other metals needed for EVs.
“At the end of the day, neither the president nor Congress can support a scheme that facilitates U.S. taxpayer funds going to Chinese companies mining and refining Indonesian critical minerals through a trade agreement that does not include environmental and labor protections,” Julie C. Lucas, executive director of the industry group MiningMinnesota, told VOA in a statement.
Biden and Widodo will elevate diplomatic ties to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” a status that Jakarta already shares with Beijing. Under Widodo, Indonesia has embraced China’s massive infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road Initiative, attracting a record amount of Chinese investment. It’s second only to Pakistan in terms of value of BRI projects — $20.3 billion and 71 operating projects.
Observers say Chinese President Xi Jinping is eyeing the vast archipelago as a key prize in expanding Beijing’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. Just last month, he announced an expansion of cooperation with Indonesia on emerging industries such as the digital economy, photovoltaics and EVs. Photovoltaics involve converting light into electricity.
While Jakarta relies heavily on Chinese investments, observers say it is wary of Beijing’s increasingly assertive claims to disputed waters in the South China Sea. Like many countries in the region, it has been boosting military ties with Washington.
After his Washington stop, Widodo heads to San Francisco for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit hosted by the U.S. Biden is set to meet with Xi on the sidelines of the APEC summit and is keen to use discussions with Widodo to inform him on regional views on Beijing.
Those include “critical issues like the South China Sea, what they’re seeing and with respect to China’s diplomacy and engagement,” the first senior official said.
The pair will also be discussing the crisis in Myanmar. Since a February 2021 military coup, the junta in Myanmar has carried out a brutal nationwide crackdown on millions of people opposed to its rule, ignoring demands by Indonesia and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for constructive dialogue and an immediate cessation of violence.
Eva Mazrieva, Naras Prameswari and Rio Tuasikal contributed to this report.