Indonesia, US elevate ties as Joko Widodo urges Biden to end Gaza ‘atrocities’

Shailaja Neelakantan, Ika Inggas and Nazmul Ahasan
2023.11.13
Washington
Indonesia, US elevate ties as Joko Widodo urges Biden to end Gaza ‘atrocities’ U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, Nov. 13, 2023.
[Saul Loeb/AFP]

Washington and Jakarta elevated their relationship on Monday even as Indonesia’s visiting leader delivered “a very strong message” from the Muslim world to his American counterpart to press for efforts towards a ceasefire and to end “atrocities” in Gaza.

The two countries formalized their deeper ties during a late afternoon meeting at the White House between U.S. President Joe Biden and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the president of Indonesia, a vital ally for Washington in Asia, where it competes with Beijing for economic and geopolitical influence.

But the Israel-Hamas war and the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip overshadowed the talks that analysts had noted would showcase Washington’s stronger ties with Southeast Asia days ahead of the APEC summit in San Francisco. The Jakarta Post, Indonesia’s top English daily newspaper, had said the meeting between the two presidents would focus on Indo-Pacific security.

“Indonesia appeals to the U.S. to do more to stop the atrocities in Gaza. [A] ceasefire is a must for the sake of humanity,” Jokowi told Biden in front of pool reporters at their meeting, according to transcripts from the White House.

Jokowi landed in Washington on Sunday, fresh off attending an emergency meeting in Saudi Arabia of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the League of Arab States on the situation in Gaza.

Israel’s air and ground strikes on the densely populated Palestinian enclave, in the wake of attacks by Hamas militants in early October, have killed more than 11,000 people, crippled hospitals and destroyed basic infrastructure, authorities in Gaza said. The wave of Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 killed at least 1,400 people, according to news reports.

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Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (center) and leaders of other Muslim and Arab countries participate in the Extraordinary Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, at the King Abdulaziz International Convention Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 11, 2023. [Courtesy @jokowi via X]

A day earlier on the social media platform X, Jokowi said the OIC meeting had arrived at a resolution with 31 decisions and “very strong and harsh messages” that were the voices of the 57 Muslim-majority countries that make up a third of the world’s population.

In addition to calling on the U.S. to push its close ally Israel to agree to a ceasefire, participants called on countries to stop exporting weapons to the Jewish state “to kill the Palestinian people.” They also called on the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor to investigate “war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by Israel against Palestine.”

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, doesn’t recognize Israel and condemns its strikes on Gaza and the heavy human toll they are taking.

Biden, meanwhile, said in a speech in mid-October after a visit to Israel that “the terrorist group Hamas unleashed pure, unadulterated evil in the world.”

The U.S. is also against a ceasefire and has blocked or vetoed U.N. efforts toward that because it believes the cessation would allow the Hamas militants to regroup.

But in a briefing Sunday to the media, senior Biden administration officials said that Washington considered it important to know Indonesia’s views on Gaza and the Middle East.

“I know that the president is going to want to 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 official said, according to a briefing transcript.

“[W]hat we’re likely to hear from the Indonesians is not just about the ceasefire issue – which, of course, is extremely important in the immediate – but we’ll also be talking about long-term goals – or medium-term and long-term goals and objectives … And I think those are areas that we look forward to working closely with Indonesia on, given its leading role.”

‘A new era’

For his part, Biden, while speaking with Jokowi in front of the press pool, did not mention the situation in the Middle East. He focused on the elevation of the United States’ relationship with the world’s third-largest democracy, Indonesia, to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

“This will mark a new era of relations between the United States and Indonesia across the board, affecting everything,” Biden said at the meeting with Jokowi.

“The inclusion of … security cooperation, particularly maritime security, includes explaining how to work together to build a secure and resilient supply chain. It includes deepening our collaboration to combat the climate crisis,” Biden added.

Biden will soon announce programs in Indonesia to promote inclusive economic prosperity through investments in critical and emerging technologies, micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises and sustainable development, said a White House statement on Monday. 

Jokowi, too, mentioned that for Indonesia, “economic cooperation is [a] priority.”

During Jokowi’s nearly 10-year tenure, Indonesia has become the recipient of a large amount of Chinese investments and loans for huge infrastructure projects. And yet, Jakarta is wary of Beijing, especially as the Asian superpower is increasingly more assertive in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

Indonesia is now “much more focused on capabilities that allow them to understand what’s going on in their maritime domain,” a senior Biden administration official said at Sunday’s briefing. That means, he said, the Southeast Asian nation would be looking to acquire equipment that helps them towards this goal.

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Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (left) receives a jersey as a gift from Joel Hellman, dean of the School of Foreign Service, at Georgetown University in Washington, Nov. 13, 2023. [Nazmul Ahasan/BenarNews]

On climate cooperation, the two countries will soon be announcing a number of initiatives related to combined efforts to combat the climate crisis and building on the Just Energy Transition Partnership funding plan to help Indonesia move away from coal, a senior administration official said Sunday.  

“We’ll be layering on top of that some important new initiatives related to carbon capture and storage, supporting Indonesia’s electricity grid, improving air quality, and enhancing climate cooperation,” the official said.

Trade in minerals

Earlier on Monday, the Indonesian president made a pitch to widen trade cooperation with the U.S., especially in critical minerals, and specifically in nickel, at a talk he gave at Georgetown University in Washington.

“Being rich in critical minerals and having the potential for green energy, Indonesia can be a valuable partner for the United States,” he told the audience of students.

“Indonesia possesses the world’s largest nickel reserves, the second-largest tin reserves, and significant potential in green energy. These resources can be directed towards the production of green economic products that we can develop together between America and Indonesia.”

While the two leaders did not mention nickel exports, the issue was one they were expected to discuss.

Indonesia wants to sell nickel to the U.S. under a limited free trade agreement so it can benefit from U.S. tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) for electric vehicles (EVs) that extend to free trade agreement (FTA) partners, according to an April paper by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, an independent Washington-based research organization.

But Indonesia’s 2022 ban on the export of nickel requiring it to be processed at home to add value to exports, and China’s considerable investment in nickel facilities in the Southeast Asian nation, have been obstacles.

The U.S. wants to begin a process that would lead to a useful partnership in nickel trade, a senior administration official said, adding that such a process was at a very early stage.

“[I]t’s going to be important that the two sides begin a process in which we hear from each other what our expectations are. I think we know clearly some of the things that Indonesia is looking for, but they’re going to have to hear from us what some of our hopes and expectations are as well,” he said. 

Human rights

Earlier in the day, three human rights advocacy groups held a press briefing in Washington to discuss democracy, human rights and good governance in Indonesia, which is heading to a general election in February.

“[S]erious human rights issues in Indonesia are currently imperiling the country’s political situation and economic growth and could undermine its commitments to addressing climate change,” they said in their invitation to the briefing.

Jokowi’s second and final term ends in October 2024 because constitutional term limits restrict his presidency to two terms. Observers have in recent months questioned whether he is building a political dynasty by promoting his family members and loyalists to government.

Usman Hamid of Amnesty International Indonesia believes the upcoming general election is going to be unfair because of nepotism in the judiciary and the election commission’s bias.

“This will be the first unfair election, given the lack of credibility in the election commission,  lack of independent selection process of its commissioners, intimidation by the national commissioners against local commissioners of the election commission in the provinces and so on,” Usman said at the briefing.

 Dandy Koswaraputra and Pizaro Gozali Idrus in Jakarta, and Alex Willemyns of Radio Free Asia, a news service affiliated with BenarNews, contributed to this report.

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