Indonesia election: Washington's fast response a sign of relief at poll results

Indonesia election: Washington's fast response a sign of relief at poll results

The United States was quick to congratulate Mr Joko Widodo for winning the Indonesian presidential election, a reflection, say analysts, of the relief that the less controversial candidate prevailed.

Washington had stressed for months that it would be willing to work with whoever the winner was, but it was an open secret that administration officials preferred not to have to deal with the dark record of Mr Joko's opponent Prabowo Subianto.

"The US is not going to be a player in the election process... but I'm quite sure there is relief in Washington at not having to confront the delicate issue of how to engage with a president who has a long, complex and dark history filled with allegations of human rights abuses during his military career," said Ms Karen Brooks, adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But beyond Mr Joko's clean and hardworking reputation at home, most in Washington say the President-elect's foreign policy remains largely unknown.

Unlike his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, commonly referred to as SBY, Mr Joko takes the helm having little foreign policy experience to speak of. Most thus expect US-Indonesia ties to be in a holding pattern until the new leader, nicknamed Jokowi, sorts out his domestic priorities.

"SBY had studied in the US. Jokowi, on the other hand, is a businessman and his main exposure to the US was as a furniture exporter," said Mr Murray Hiebert, deputy director and senior fellow of the Sumitro Chair for South-east Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"Certainly in his first few months, Jokowi will be focused on the economy, reducing fuel subsidies, getting some infrastructure projects under construction."

Dr Vibhanshu Shekhar, scholar-in-residence at the ASEAN Studies Centre in the American University, put it this way: "Indonesia's foreign policy, especially its ASEAN policy... and policy on South China Sea, will be on auto- pilot for a while. Therefore, the role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the... foreign minister will hold the key."

Yet, Ms Brooks argues that the White House will likely not expect too much from Indonesia's foreign policy for now. "I believe the current administration shares the view that we should be focused on whether Jokowi is delivering at home... And as long as he is making progress on the economy to make it more inclusive at home while still remaining open to foreign investment, we're going to be great. We're going to have a strong partnership," she said.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 24, 2014.
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