What had been expected to be a workmanlike meeting Monday between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Indonesian counterpart, Joko Widodo, has become more sensitive in light of widespread Muslim anger over Israel’s devastating anti-terror campaign in Gaza.
The announced goal of the White House meeting is to upgrade U.S. diplomatic ties with a key Indo-Pacific partner that has been advancing toward China’s sphere of influence. The two leaders are expected to elevate bilateral ties to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” putting Washington on par with Beijing.
However, the presidents are far apart in their responses to the Israel-Hamas war, with Biden offering staunch support to Israel in its response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack into Israel, while Widodo has called the humanitarian situation in Gaza “unacceptable.”
Biden understands “there are strong feelings” but “will continue to make it clear the U.S. stands with Israel,” National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby told VOA during a briefing Thursday.
Biden will also make it clear that the United States will do everything it can to provide humanitarian aid and safe passage for the Palestinian people and will not back down from “the real promise of a two-state solution.”
Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he expects the two presidents to tread carefully on the emotion-laden issue, particularly on calls for an indefinite cease-fire.
“Anything Jokowi [Joko Widodo] says that’s too critical of Israel or too supportive of Hamas will damage relations with the U.S and the West. And anything he says that is not sufficiently critical of Israel will damage him at home,” Poling said.
Indonesian support for Palestinian cause
The Palestinian cause heavily influences political views in Indonesia based on its anti-colonial tradition and demographics. About 229 million Muslims — 13% of the world’s total — live here, where they constitute 87% of the population.
Just as no presidential candidate can win in the U.S. without pledging support for Israel, the opposite is the case in Indonesia.
“Not a single Indonesian president has dared not to defend Palestine,” said Siti Mutiah Setiawati, a lecturer of Middle East studies at Indonesia’s Gadjah Mada University. “Our founding fathers have laid the foundation of our foreign policy — nonaligned, free and active. Defend the oppressed,” she said.
As civilian casualties mount in Gaza, several Indonesian cities have erupted in protest over U.S. support of Israel. Prominent Islamic parties have often sought to capitalize on the Palestinian issue, and with a presidential election next year, the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle is wary of Widodo appearing too soft on the war in Gaza.
Just a day before his White House visit, Widodo is scheduled to attend a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, hosted by Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, where the agenda calls for a discussion of “the brutal Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people.”
But policy experts warn that any friction over the Israel-Hamas war could jeopardize progress on a long list of common interests, including a deal on nickel and China’s rising ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
“The incentive here is to avoid any sort of public airing of differences over the Israel-Gaza conflict,” said Lucas Myers, senior associate for Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program.
Critical minerals deal
Jakarta has been pushing for a limited free trade agreement similar to one the U.S. signed with Japan in March that will allow Indonesian nickel exports to be covered by the 2022 U.S. Inflation Reduction Act.
The IRA is Biden’s signature climate change and clean energy legislation that provides tens of billions of dollars in tax credits to spur domestic electric vehicle manufacturing and sales.
American consumers can qualify for a $7,500 tax credit to purchase an EV if 50% of its battery components were produced in North America and if 40% of the critical minerals used for the vehicle was extracted, processed and/or recycled domestically or in a country that has a free trade agreement with Washington.
EV manufacturing requires various critical minerals, including nickel, of which Indonesia has the world’s largest reserves by far. When Widodo met Vice President Kamala Harris in Jakarta in September, he asked the U.S. to begin talks on a limited free trade deal for critical minerals.
Negotiations have not formally begun, but according to the White House, Biden and Widodo will “explore opportunities to enhance cooperation on the clean energy transition.”
Challenges lie ahead since Indonesia’s mining and refining industry is dependent on Chinese investment and besieged by labor and environmental concerns. In October, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent a letter to the Biden administration urging it to include these concerns in its consideration of any expanded access for critical minerals.
While Jakarta wants a bilateral deal like the U.S.-Japan Critical Minerals Agreement, Washington is also exploring a critical minerals scheme under its 2022 Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, signed by 13 countries including Indonesia. The IPEF does not grant market access to its signees but offers trade facilitation.
Poling said some sort of critical minerals announcement will likely come out of Monday’s meeting.
“There will also probably be a multilateral critical minerals announcement around APEC, like this will be part of IPEF,” he said.
Polling was referring to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that the U.S. will be hosting next week in San Francisco that Widodo will attend. Whether Indonesia gets both — the kickoff of bilateral talks on critical minerals and a multilateral framework — remains to be seen, he added.
With its large population, fast-growing trillion-dollar economy and abundant resources, Indonesia plays a key role in the geopolitical battle for influence in Asia between Washington and Beijing.
Under Widodo, who cannot run for a third term but is aiming to cement his legacy as a champion of infrastructure projects, Indonesia came second only to Pakistan in terms of value of Belt and Road Initiative projects — $20.3 billion and 71 operating projects in 2021.
However, like other major Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia is tilting its military relations toward Washington as China increasingly asserts its claim to disputed waters in the South China Sea.
In August, the Indonesian and U.S. militaries conducted the Super Garuda Shield exercises, expanding their annual drills to involve more than 4,000 service members with 19 nations either participating or observing. It was one of the largest multinational exercises in the Indo-Pacific region.
Monday’s visit by Widodo was arranged after Biden sent Harris to the ASEAN summit hosted by Indonesia in September, and he went to Hanoi.