Washington has billed Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Indonesia next week as a booster for the strategic partnership between the world’s second- and third-largest democracies, but a raft of bilateral tensions could sap the goodwill from his trip.
Pence’s counterpart in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country has voiced worries about United States President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, which critics say is biased against Muslims, and about his “America First” mantra on trade and investment.
“We in Indonesia never change. The change is there. That’s why we’re asking them now, ‘what is your policy now on the economy, on democracy, now that Trump is in power?’,” Vice President Jusuf Kalla told Reuters on March 31.
“What does it mean, ‘America first’? I can say, too, ‘Indonesia first’ if you say ‘America first.’”
Indonesia is one of 16 countries against which the US runs a trade deficit that will be investigated by the Trump administration for possible trade abuses.
Trump’s combative approach will not sit easily with Indonesia, where economic nationalism and protectionist tendencies have flourished since a slump in commodity prices in recent years slammed the brakes on economic growth.
“Unfortunately I do see a hardening of attitudes on our side,” said a senior Indonesian government official, who declined to be named. “And it’s of particular concern because we’re on that list of 16 countries [...] that are going to be investigated.”
The official said a tougher stance by Indonesian authorities had also contributed to a series of disputes with US companies, including Alphabet Inc.’s Google, miner Freeport-McMoRan Inc. and financial services giant JP Morgan Chase & Co.
Indonesia has dueled with Google over back taxes and fines running into hundreds of millions of dollars, and with Freeport in a contract row that has crippled operations at the world’s secondlargest copper mine, Grasberg.
It also dropped JP Morgan as a primary bond dealer after the bank’s research analysts issued a negative report on the country in November.
“It’s a very unfortunate series of issues which all happen to be American,” said the official, who expects them to come up in private during Pence’s visit. Indonesia is the third stop on an April 15-25 tour that includes South Korea, Japan and Australia.
Freeport Indonesia spokesman Riza Pratama said: “This visit is happening entirely independent of our current negotiations with the government of Indonesia.”
However, billionaire investor Carl Icahn, Freeport’s thirdbiggest shareholder and now a special adviser to Trump, has described Jakarta’s tactics over the mining contract as “disingenuous and insulting,” according to the New York Times.
Another potential irritant is biodiesel. The US National Biodiesel Board (NBB), a producer group, has petitioned the US government to impose anti-dumping duties on biodiesel from Indonesia and Argentina, claiming they have flooded the US market.
“This is one of the issues that we have asked the trade ministry to bring to the meeting [with Pence],” Paulus Tjakrawan, a director at the Indonesia Biofuel Producers Association, told Reuters.
“Our hope is for the government to be firm [...] Otherwise we will be taken advantage of,” he said. “Not to act like thugs but, for example, if they put barriers to our exports, why not stop importing some of their goods?”
Despite the strains, the government official said Indonesia would be careful to start its relationship with the Trump administration on the right foot.
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s approach to foreign policy has been led more by economic interests than geopolitical considerations: he has pursued increased trade and investment from China but keeps a diplomatic distance from Beijing and established a strategic partnership with Washington under former president Barack Obama.
US ambassador to Indonesia Joseph R. Donovan Jr. said in a statement last week that Pence’s visit reflected a continued commitment to that partnership, would deepen economic engagement and boost regional security cooperation.
“The US embassy here certainly is going to great lengths to make the visit a success,” said the Indonesian official. “My impression is he’s [Pence] not going to ruffle feathers in public, he’s not going to cause a ruckus.”
United States Vice President Mike Pence will travel to South Korea on Sunday in what his aides said was a sign of the US commitment to its ally in the face of rising tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program.
Pence’s Seoul stop kicks off a long-planned 10-day trip to Asia — his first as vice president — and comes amid concerns that Pyongyang could soon conduct its sixth nuclear test. President Donald Trump has warned against further provocations, sending an aircraft carrier group to the region as a show of force. His officials have been assessing tougher economic sanctions as well as military options to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Pence plans to celebrate Easter with US and Korean troops on Sunday before talks on Monday with acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn.
“We’re going to consult with the Republic of Korea on North Korea’s efforts to advance its ballistic missile and its nuclear program,” a White House foreign policy adviser told reporters, previewing Pence’s trip.
Pence will land in Seoul the day after North Korea’s biggest national day, the “Day of the Sun.” The White House has contingency plans for Pence’s trip should it coincide with a another North Korean nuclear test by its leader Kim Jong-un, the adviser said.
“Unfortunately, it’s not a new surprise for us. He continues to develop this program, he continues to launch missiles into the Sea of Japan,” the adviser said.
“With the regime it’s not a matter of if — it’s when. We are well prepared to counter that,” the adviser said.
Pence expects to talk about the “belligerence” of North Korea at stops in Tokyo, Jakarta and Sydney, the White House adviser said. But the need for “free and fair trade” will also be a theme, the adviser said.
Trump campaigned on an “America First” trade policy, complaining that trade partners in Asia and elsewhere had taken advantage of the US.
One of his first acts in office was to remove the US from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal negotiated by former president Barack Obama.
“Withdrawing from the TPP shouldn’t be seen as a retreat from the region. On the contrary, our economic presence in the region is enduring,” the adviser said.
On Tuesday, Pence will kick off economic talks with Japan requested by Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The discussions will focus more on setting a “framework” for future talks rather than on specific industry issues, a White House official said.
Pence will meet with business leaders at each stop, including in Jakarta, though he was not expected to wade into the weedy details of disputes between the Indonesian government and US companies like mining giant Freeport-McMoRan Inc .
“We’re going to discuss the business environment in Indonesia in a general sense,” a White House official said.
Meanwhile, Japan’s National Security Council discussed how to evacuate its nearly 60,000 citizens from South Korea in the event of a crisis, a government official said on Friday.
Besides commercial ships and planes, Japan would want to send military aircraft and ships to assist in the evacuation if the South Korean government agreed, the official, familiar with the discussion, said. He declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.
The NSC, in a meeting on Thursday, also discussed how to cope with a possible flood of North Korean refugees into Japan, among whom might be North Korean spies and agents, Japanese media reported.