An Engaging Presence

An Engaging Presence

How Indonesia’s geostrategic location can make it a leader for improving regional maritime security

Capt. Rohan Joseph/Sri Lanka Navy

During the past decade, world attention turned toward the Indo-Pacific region as never before. The safety of sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that span this region is of paramount importance to the U.S. to ensure a free and open maritime domain in the Indo-Pacific. Maritime complexities require a comprehensive approach to security concerns. U.S. presence in the region is critical for preserving strategic U.S. maritime interests globally. 

The U.S. faces many challenges in ensuring free and open seas in the Indo-Pacific. Considering the vast area as well as competition in the region, the U.S. needs the cooperation of other nations to achieve its objective. A partnership with Indonesia provides a great connecting node for the U.S. to link with the rest of the region because of Indonesia’s strategic strengths. To realize the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy’s objectives, active presence and engagement through forging partnerships remain vital. In this endeavor, strategic strengths displayed by Indonesia offer the much-needed access required by the U.S. to address maritime security concerns in the Indo-Pacific.

As the Indo-Pacific’s relevance evolves, maritime security issues need to be addressed to ensure the free flow of commerce and freedom of navigation. Today, the Indo-Pacific has become a place for power competition. Apart from nontraditional threats, competition and rivalry need to be carefully handled to ensure that the region does not succumb to security issues that could negatively impact maritime trade.

Indonesian Navy officers salute as the U.S. Navy ship USS Blue Ridge prepares to dock at Tanjung Priok Port in Jakarta, Indonesia, in May 2019. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

At the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, U.S. President Donald Trump drew a connection between the U.S. economy and national security when he announced, “The U.S. has been reminded time and time again in recent years that economic security is not merely related to national security. Economic security is national security. It is vital to our national strength.” 

At the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis highlighted the requirement for Indo-Pacific countries to come together in shaping the future of the region and highlighted the maritime space, among other aspects. “The maritime commons are a global good, and the sea lanes of communication are the arteries of economic vitality for all. … Through our security cooperation, we are building closer relationships between our militaries and our economies,” Mattis said.

Based on these stated U.S. interests, maritime security in the Indo-Pacific becomes a strategic concern for the U.S. This analysis examines how the U.S. can increase presence and engagement in the Indo-Pacific by expanding the already established U.S.-Indonesian partnership that relies on the geographical centrality of Indonesia in connecting the Indo-Pacific. It also addresses the U.S.’s maritime focus on Indonesia and the acceptance of Indonesia by regional players as a strategic partner. 

With this backdrop, it’s also important to highlight Indonesia’s challenges in countering maritime security issues and achieving its own maritime vision, as well as how Indonesia and regional partners respond to external influences with U.S. participation.


U.S.-Indonesia relations have progressed since their establishment of diplomatic ties in 1949. In the intervening seven decades, bilateral relations have fluctuated, but a series of reforms implemented since 1998 made Indonesia politically stable and paved the way for increased U.S. interaction. During a visit to Indonesia in March 2006, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice highlighted the term “strategic partnership,” indicating the willingness of the U.S. to partner with Indonesia to promote Indo-Pacific stability. In November 2009, then-U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono inaugurated the comprehensive partnership between the two countries. This partnership focused on improving cooperation and the advancement of strategic discussions on bilateral, regional and global issues, including security.

Based on strengthening ties, the U.S. government expanded the 2010 comprehensive partnership to a broader strategic partnership in 2015. The U.S. declaration of Indonesia as a strategic partner speaks to the importance placed on Indonesia and on the region. 

“The U.S.-Indonesia strategic partnership is critical to the national interests of both nations and will grow more so in the years to come,” then-U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) Commander Adm. Harry B. Harris said at the U.S.-Indonesia Society and American Chamber of Commerce in August 2017.

His statement also highlighted USINDOPACOM’s broader expectations in engaging the region through expanded strategic cooperation. The U.S.-Indonesia military relations progressed despite certain setbacks at various stages. The 9/11 attacks added a new episode to the Washington-Jakarta relations. The global war on terrorism, led by the U.S., adjusted policy priorities toward Southeast Asian nations. As a direct result, Washington-Jakarta defense relations have grown since 9/11. Perhaps most importantly, the position Indonesia holds in the Muslim world and its experience in dealing with terrorism made Indonesia a significant partner in the war. 

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, center, inspects troops during his visit at Indonesian Navy ship KRI Usman Harun at Selat Lampa Port, Natuna Islands, Indonesia,

“We probably engage with the Indonesian military more than any other nation anywhere in terms of mil-to-mil engagements,” Mattis said during his visit to Indonesia in January 2018. 

Mattis also emphasized the need for maritime cooperation in the unique maritime environment that Indonesia holds by connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans. The Indonesian military continues to engage in various training missions with other regional partners and the U.S., such as USINDOPACOM’s Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training. Close to 170 bilateral military-to-military exercises are held annually between the two countries.


Indonesia is strategically located at the center of the global maritime domain and is a pivotal state in Southeast Asia. Its geographical centrality and proximity to one of the most important maritime trade highways connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans makes Indonesia the undisputed gateway to the Indo-Pacific. Growing maritime trade through the Malacca Strait has made this waterway one of the most strategically important chokepoints with access to the South China Sea. About U.S. $5.3 trillion worth of trade passes annually through the sea, which includes U.S. $1.2 trillion in trade with the U.S. An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 ships transit the Malacca Strait annually. Because regional and global economies heavily depend on the Malacca Strait, its safety and security, as well as the continuity of SLOCs, have become an important strategic consideration. Therefore, the responsibility for ensuring access to the strait falls largely on Indonesia. 

Piracy in the strait has decreased due to greater regional efforts. A minor attack in 2018 became the first recorded piracy attack since December 2015. Capitalizing on its location, Indonesia has been instrumental in leading cooperative anti-piracy efforts in the strait. 

Indonesia’s geographical position offers many advantages in addressing maritime security concerns in the region. Indonesia’s active role in the formative stages and the successive progression of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since its founding in 1967, has been closely tied with the country’s foreign policy. In 2018, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry declared the Indo-Pacific Cooperative Mechanism of the Southeast Asian countries highlighting three key aspects: respect for international norms and finding solutions through dialogue; addressing key security challenges; and creating economic hubs in the Indian and South Pacific oceans.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, center, inspects troops during his visit at Indonesian Navy ship KRI Usman Harun at Selat Lampa Port, Natuna Islands, Indonesia,


Indonesian foreign policy is centered on ASEAN, where its de facto leadership status provides a strong position to cooperate with members and other regional players, including the U.S. The success of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy will depend on ASEAN’s centrality. Furthermore, partners in the region and beyond will be essential in achieving Indonesia’s global maritime objectives.

Indonesia’s foreign policy enables active engagement with partners and explains why Indonesia is one of the front members of the nonaligned movement. This foreign policy stance has been a strength in establishing strong ties with countries such as Australia, India and Japan while maintaining close cooperation with global partners. The Australian government’s Foreign Policy White Paper of 2017, for example, emphasized the importance of strengthening relations with Indonesia in areas such as economy and defense. 

Strategic developments in the Indo-Pacific, including the rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC),  make it imperative for Australia to strengthen bilateral relations with Indonesia. 

The “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” released in 2019, demonstrates ASEAN’s strong commitment to preserve the international rules-based order. The Australian policy documents also indicate the importance of adhering to international norms, transparency and inclusiveness.  

In South Asia, Indonesia’s ties with India have progressed over the years, and Jakarta has identified that the regional dynamics require both countries to coordinate closely to become maritime powers and to address external influences. Economic dynamics and maritime potential are two main areas, among others, that India expects to improve by engaging with Indonesia. During a 2019 meeting, the countries’ foreign ministers pledged to triple bilateral trade by 2025 to U.S. $50 billion. Engineering, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, auto industry, information technology services, palm oil, coal and natural resources are some of the leading fields offering cooperation opportunities that could benefit both countries. 

Policy experts consider strategic initiatives such as Act East; Asia-Africa Growth Corridor; Free, Open Inclusive Indo-Pacific; and Security and Growth for All in the Region to be pillars that support India’s wider Indo-Pacific strategic objectives. 

The shared vision of the India-Indonesia maritime cooperation that launched in 2018 highlights the importance of ensuring maritime security in the Indo-Pacific to achieve strategy and policy goals of both countries. India needs a neutral partner in the Indo-Pacific that could offer a sound base to launch such strategic initiatives. Partnering with Indonesia would be a major step in that direction and also offers India a strategic edge for its economic potential and ambitions to become a global maritime power.

Members of the Indonesian Navy’s marine patrol unit demonstrate their skills during a simulated anti-terror exercise at the Surabaya port in East Java in December 2019. GETTY IMAGES


Indonesia-Japan ties have grown over the years since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1958. The 1977 Fukuda Doctrine brought several changes to economic relations. Japan has also recognized the importance of engaging with ASEAN, where Indonesia is a key player. The two countries pledged to accelerate discussions over the General Review Indonesia-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (GRIJEPA) in 2019. As an emerging Southeast Asian economic entity, Indonesia shares strong economic relations with Japan. Although India pulled out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), 14 countries, including Japan and China, agreed to it in 2019. 

The RCEP has the potential to become the world’s largest trade agreement. Both the GRIJEPA and RCEP provide excellent opportunities for Japan to work closely with Indonesia. Japan, an ally of the U.S., needs to have a strategic maritime partner with the potential to provide a sound footing that is essential when solving complicated issues in the Indo-Pacific. Like Australia, Japan will find the Indonesian partnership important when addressing issues that require cooperation and coordination among neutral yet like-minded partners. Even though Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy has a broader view spanning from the East African coast to the West Coast of the U.S., Japan needs a strategic node that could offer options to gain access to the Indian Ocean. 

Elsewhere in North Asia, Indonesia has strengthened ties with South Korea through the Indonesia-Korea Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IKCEPA). Through IKCEPA — which was finalized in November 2019 — the countries plan to boost two-way trade to more than U.S. $30 billion by 2022 with the removal of tariff barriers, according to Reuters.

“The global economy has been facing rising uncertainty from the rising tide of protectionism in the last few years,” said Yoo Myung-Hee, South Korea’s trade minister, according to Reuters. “Korea, as one of the largest beneficiaries of free trade, and Indonesia, as leader of ASEAN, are signaling to the world our true support for free, open and rules-based trade in this very challenging time.”


Even a small maritime nation like Sri Lanka could benefit from enhancing the already established relations with Indonesia. Sri Lanka-Indonesia relations date to the fifth century marked by the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism. Since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1952, Sri Lanka and Indonesia have gradually expanded relations. During Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s visit to Sri Lanka in 2018, leaders of the two countries agreed to expand cooperation on trade, economy and capacity building. 

South Asia lacks a strong regional organization that has the potential to drive the entire region toward reaping Indian Ocean benefits. Sri Lanka and Indonesia are members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, which could benefit Sri Lanka by working closely with Indonesia.

Enhancing maritime cooperation with Indonesia will bring unprecedented results for a small island nation like Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s geostrategic location in the Indian Ocean and the interest shown by some of the leading players in establishing strategic partnerships centered on the maritime domain makes Sri Lanka an ideal partner for Indonesia and vice versa. 

Likewise, partnering with Indonesia remains important for the U.S. Establishing a stronger strategic partnership with Indonesia will demonstrate the strength of the U.S. commitment to any doubters in the region. Indonesian neutrality is a key strength that could benefit the U.S. Indonesia’s access to the Indian and Pacific oceans offers the U.S. an Indian Ocean link through ASEAN. Ensuring freedom of navigation, adherence to a rules-based international order, and the security of the maritime trade and energy SLOCs should top the list of Washington policymakers. As the U.S. and China vie for influence in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. will work harder to find a strong launching pad that supports U.S. strategic initiatives in the region. The Indonesian neutrality offers a greater opportunity for the U.S. to do just that.


The U.S. should consider areas, such as extraregional pressure and Indonesia’s maritime challenges, as it continues to engage on maritime concerns in the Indo-Pacific. Many countries in the region believe that the U.S. is attempting to dominate the region through its strategy. Its unique geographical centrality in the Indo-Pacific, access to major SLOCs, economic potential, existing strong U.S. relations, prominent position in ASEAN, acceptance by regional partners and ties with the PRC make Indonesia a decisive strategic partner for the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific when addressing maritime security concerns and in implementing the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. In this regard, consider the following recommendations: 

Strategic Partnerships: Complex maritime affairs influence regional/global players to form strong partnerships. A strong position held by Indonesia in the ASEAN provides a unique platform to forge strategic partnerships with a number of countries. The establishment of multilateral strategic alliances centering on Indonesia will allow the U.S. to diplomatically counter the PRC. 

Strategic Presence: To address maritime security concerns, strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific is a prerequisite. Failure to do so will grant an opportunity for others to fill the vacuum. Expansion of the USINDOPACOM area of responsibility demarcation toward the East African coast could enhance the U.S. presence in the entire Indian Ocean. 

Strategic Engagement: Strategic partnership and presence building centering on Indonesia will assist the U.S. to better engage with regional partners. Engagement should focus on diplomatic, informational, military and economic aspects. USINDOPACOM should play a leading role in all four elements using a collaborative approach through its partnership with Indonesia.