Distracted pragmatism: Indonesian responses to Trump

Picture of Associate Professor Greg Fealy

Associate Professor Greg Fealy

Associate Professor Greg Fealy

When Donald Trump was installed as United States’ president in January 2017, many observers, myself included, predicted a hostile reaction in Indonesia.  To judge from Indonesian leaders’ responses to Trump’s many controversial statements during the 2016 election campaign, a backlash from both the government and civil society appeared inevitable once the new president sought to carry out his promises to electors. 

Instead, Indonesian criticism of the new administration has been surprisingly muted.  President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and his ministers have been guarded in their responses to Trump’s pronouncements and policies, and so have community groups, including Islamic organisations, which have been most expected to protest vociferously.  The reasons for this subdued reaction have much to do with domestic political preoccupations and perceived economic self-interest.

Campaign backlash

Recent history suggests that Donald Trump would be the type of United States politician most likely to arouse hostility within Indonesia.  The presidencies of George Bush Senior and George W. Bush were unpopular in Indonesia because they waged war within Muslim countries.  George W. Bush was especially disliked by Indonesian Islamic groups for his ‘Global War on Terrorism’ as well as the bombing of Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq, both of which drew large protests on the streets of major cities.  When he visited the country in 2006, he received a frosty reception from Islamic leaders and was much criticised by politicians and the media.  More generally, Bush’s perceived unilateralism and notions of the United States as a dominant moral force in the world irritated many of Indonesia’s elite who hold deep suspicions of superpowers and their intentions towards smaller, developing nations.

Trump’s campaign statements during 2016 were widely reported in Indonesia and drew a strongly negative response.  His criticisms of Islam and promises to ban Muslims immigration to the United States were given particular attention, as also were his undertakings to ”wipe out Islamic State within 30 days of taking office”, which carried the prospect of expanded military action in predominantly Muslim nations, such as Syria and Iraq. 

Numerous senior political figures voiced their disapproval. TB Hasanuddin, a senior MP from the governing coalition warned: “If (Trump) continues his racist position, it will bring danger to American assets.  Donald Trump’s arrogance could be harmful for US citizens around the world.” Deputy Speaker of parliament, Fadli Zon declared he would seek restrictions on United States trade and investment in Indonesia if Trump became president. Others called for his businesses to be banned from Indonesia if Muslims were barred from entering the Unites States.  An online petition to President Widodo garnered more 45,000 signatures calling for the closing of Trump’s enterprises in Indonesia.  One signatory told Reuters, “Donald Trump doesn’t want Muslims of the world to enter the United States…so we should do the same to him.  Condemn, refuse and boycott every Donald Trump business and his affiliations…We should prove that we have power.” Even the diplomatically-savvy Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, ex-general Luhut Panjaitan told CNN, “How come he won’t allow Muslim people to enter America while he has money in Indonesia, investment in Indonesia?“ Luhut suggested that Indonesia would look elsewhere for trading partners if Trump blocked Indonesians from entering the United States.

Aside from religious matters, strategic and economic issues had also drawn criticism of Trump.  Commentators worried about the impact on the region and Indonesia of his talk of reduced United States military involvement in Asia, of confronting China, of scrapping multi-lateral trade arrangements and pursuing protectionist policies.  Businesspeople expressed concern about losing access to the lucrative United States market.

So, there was every reason to expect a souring of relations between Indonesia and the United States once the Trump administration came to power.

With inauguration comes circumspection

Almost from the outset of the Trump presidency, Indonesian responses were, for the most part, restrained.  Political leaders who had spoken of banning Trump businesses in Indonesia or boycotting United States products fell silent and those who had strongly objected his policies now softened in their criticisms.

Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the mild response to Trump’s banning of Muslim immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations.  President Jokowi brushed the matter aside saying simply: “We [Indonesians] are not affected.  Why fret?” His Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, went a little further, expressing ”deep regret” at the ban, opining that ”it would make it harder to fight radicalisation”. Foreign Ministry spokesman, Arrmanatha Nasir, elaborated, ”Even though this policy is within the United States’ authority, Indonesia deeply regrets it because we believe it would affect the global fight against terrorism and the refugees management negatively.”

Islamic groups were also subdued.  Most Islamic leaders expressed their disappointment at Trump’s attitudes and policies but did not mobilise their followers in protest and continued to meet United States diplomats and officials.  Typical was the response of Dr Said Agil Siradj, the chairman of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, who described Trump’s ban as ”Harming the United States itself, [because] the United States will then be isolated”.  He went on to say, pragmatically, that “For Indonesia, Donald Trump’s policies would not have influence.” Even the Islamist media, such as Republika, ar-Rahmah and Voice of al-Islam gave relatively little space to reporting on Trump’s statements and did so with less invective than would normally be directed at a Western leader who targets Muslims.

Perhaps the most critical response came from economists who were worried about the impact of Trump’s protectionist policies on Indonesia.  The United States is Indonesia’s fourth largest trading partner, with non-oil and gas exports of US$15.68bn in 2016. Influential former Finance Minister, Dr Chatib Basri, expressed a common view among economists that continuing access to open trade markets was crucial to Indonesia achieving its planned 5%+ economic growth in coming years.  He feared Trump’s isolationist tendencies threatened Indonesia’s growth trajectory.  Other commentators told the financial media that Trump might deny Indonesia the opportunity for dramatic industrialisation and economic expansion that ‘Asian tigers’, such as China, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore had gone through from the 1970s, based on free trade.  Indonesia may already be suffering ill effects from Trump’s policies as its stock exchange was the only emerging market in Southeast Asia to experience net outflows so far in 2017.

These fears deepened following the administration’s decision to cite Indonesia in two ‘trade imbalance’ cases.  In late March, the United States National Biodiesel Board accused Indonesia of dumping cheap imports of biodiesel onto the United States market and filed with the United States International Trade Commission as well as the Commerce Department for the imposition of anti-dumping and countervailing duties.  Then, on 1 April, President Trump signed an executive order instructing relevant government departments and agencies to combat ‘violations to United States trade and customs laws’ by 16 countries, one of which was Indonesia.  Indonesia was 15th on the list, with a trade surplus of US$13 billion with the United States. Indonesian ministers adopted a wait-and-see attitude to the government’s response, but the actions will increase apprehensions of the possible reduction in United States trade under Trump.

Inward-looking pragmatism

Indonesia’s moderate reaction to Trump’s policies is a product of its contemporary political dynamics, which are both domestically focused and also economically orientated.  Jokowi is the least internationally aware president in Indonesian history, and he views diplomacy as mainly serving his economic growth policies.  Though he, on occasions, pays lip service to issues of solidarity with other Muslim and developing nations in Asia and Africa, he is reluctant to expend political and diplomatic capital on them.  Thus, Trump’s attempted Muslim immigration ban drew his insouciant, ”We’re not affected” remark, rather than support of the principle of non-discrimination. 

Much of Indonesia’s political elite believes that their country is well-placed to avoid being targeted by Trump.  To begin with, Indonesia seems marginal to the new president’s thinking.  His only reference to it on the hustings was to introduce two visiting Indonesian parliamentarians to the journalists, asking them if they thought he would win – to which they dutifully answered, ”yes”!  

In addition, Trump’s companies have, in the past 18 months, begun operations in Indonesia, which Jokowi’s government appears to hope might shield it from United States protectionism or retaliation.  Trump Hotel’s announced in late 2015 that it would enter a partnership with the magnate, Hary Tanoesoedibjo, to manage two luxury hotel and resort complexes in Indonesia.  Also, Trump’s advisor on regulatory issues, Carl C. Icahn, is one of the largest shareholders in the Freeport mine in Papua, the world’s largest copper and gold mine.

It is also true that for much of the past year, Indonesia has been transfixed, to an unusual degree, by its own domestic politics.  The gubernatorial election in Jakarta has brought to surface polarising issues of race and religion to national politics, as its Christian Chinese governor seeks re-election over Muslim ‘native’ rivals.  Many Islamist groups have mobilised emphatically against the incumbent, distracting them from their normal concerns about perceived Western anti-Islamic actions.  As Trump has brought minority race and religion into his own campaigning, these same two factors in Indonesia may paradoxically serve to lessen the backlash to his policies.

But Indonesia’s mild reaction to Trump is likely to change if the United States administration begins pursuing policies that directly and heavily impact on its citizens and interests.

Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team