The U.S. should support Indonesia’s democratic path while advancing our strategic interests

Learn more about Igor Khrestin .
Igor Khrestin
Bradford M. Freeman Managing Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute

One of the largest democratic exercises on earth took place last month in Indonesia, where over 200 million voters went to the polls to express their free political will.   

It was a major bright spot for democracy in the midst of the ongoing decline in freedom around the world.  

The machinery of Indonesia’s elections is highly impressive: The Feb. 14 voting took place in over 820,000 stations across the vast archipelago, comprising over 6,000 inhabited islands. In addition to voting for a new president, Indonesians cast their ballots in some 2,700 electoral contests on national and local levels.   

Tallying the votes will continue at least until mid-March both because of the scale of Indonesia’s democratic endeavor and due to various reported irregularities. The massive effort also came at a tragic human cost: 114 Indonesian poll workers died and over 15,000 reported ill from exhaustion in the wake of the vote, according to CNA, a Singapore-based news outlet.   

While the final outcomes are pending, the U.S. State Department has already praised the elections as a “testament to the durability and strength of the Indonesian people’s commitment to the democratic process and electoral institutions.” The White House reaction has also been positive, but more muted, offering only to “respect the voice and the vote of the Indonesian people.”  

The caution is understandable, considering Indonesia’s recent troubled history. The country only returned to democratic rule in 1998, following the 32-year authoritarian reign of the military dictator Suharto. But since then, the country has had multiple peaceful transfers of power, despite longstanding issues with endemic corruption, gender discrimination, and ethnic conflict. Indonesia was ranked “partly free” by Freedom House in 2023.    

Indonesia’s democratic governance and security challenges are unique. Besides its massive size, it is also notably the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy, with nearly 90% of its citizenry adhering to a moderate form of Sunni Islam. In the 2000s, Indonesia experienced a turbulent period of Islamist terrorism, including a string of large terrorist attacks perpetrated by Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaida offshoot. While the terrorism threat has largely receded, it hasn’t been completely eradicated.   

For this year’s elections, experts and democracy activists alike have worried that Indonesia’s short-lived democratic revival may be coming to an end. The reason is Prabowo Subianto, the controversial ex-Army general and the frontrunner to replace the outgoing president, Joko Widodo (widely known as “Jokowi”). Prabowo still needs to formally garner over 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff, but all signs indicate that he will easily clear that hurdle.  In a major indicator that this is all but a done deal, Jokowi on Feb. 28 awarded Prabowo his fourth star, Indonesia’s highest military honor.   

The United States now faces a conundrum of embracing a military officer whom it previously sanctioned as the leader of an elite Indonesian military unit suspected of committing human rights abuses – a unit trained by U.S. special forces, no less. That hatchet, however, was buried by the Trump Administration in October 2020, when the sanctions were lifted and Prabowo visited Washington for the first time, this time in his capacity as Indonesia’s Minister of Defense.  

The United States has little recourse but to try and make the relationship with Prabowo work, while continuing to reiterate support for democratic values and human rights with any diplomatic tools available.   

Washington needs to tread cautiously because it has vital strategic interests at stake in its relations with Jakarta. Indonesia plays a leading role in regional organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which it chaired in 2023, and major global organizations such as the Group of 20 (G20). Indonesia hosted the G20’s annual summit in 2022.   

These reasons are why, when Jokowi visited Washington in November 2023, the Biden Administration upgraded the bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, a step short of a formal alliance. As part of that elevated partnership, Washington promised to support Indonesia’s quest to join another major global organization, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which it hopes to achieve in the next few years. The United States also hopes to substantially grow bilateral defense cooperation, although Indonesia’s role as a leading member of the Non-Aligned Movement makes any formal U.S.-Indonesia military alliance a very remote prospect.   

Beijing is the proverbial dragon in the room for both sides. For the last several years, U.S. foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region has been focused squarely on deterring China and shoring up U.S. alliances. This zero-sum approach has been tough for Jakarta to swallow.    

On the one hand, Indonesia has historically bristled at China’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea, which overlap with its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), even leading to armed standoffs. Experts are now watching closely Indonesia’s massive gas exploration project near the Natuna Islands, located both inside Indonesia’s internationally-recognized EEZ as well as inside China’s unilaterally-claimed “nine-dash line.” (In 2016, in a case brought by the Philippines, a United Nations tribunal ruled that the “nine-dash” claim is unlawful under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is party.)  

On the other hand, China’s economic relationship with Indonesia far outweighs the one Indonesia has with the United States. Beijing’s pocketbook diplomacy with Jakarta – while completely nontransparent and purely transactional – has nevertheless been effective. Despite is massive size, Indonesia is only the 24th-largest trading partner for the United States, with a bilateral trade total of only $47.5 billion in 2022.  If the United States wants to improve its influence and strategic position with Indonesia, it must work quickly at both the government-to-government level and with the private sector to improve economic ties and investment.    

Over the next months, the United States will watch closely as Prabowo takes his first steps in office. Beyond Prabowo’s checkered past, activists will be looking at how he will handle pervasive corruption as well as ongoing human rights challenges, such as communal violence and gender-based violence. The ethnic conflict in West Papua – the western part of the island of New Guinea, which is part of Indonesia – also continues to fester.   

With Indonesia’s elections, the United States faces a classic dilemma of supporting an imperfect democracy, now potentially led by a military strongman, with major strategic interests at stake. Let us hope Washington’s political leaders, including those after the 2024 U.S. elections, will be able to balance these priorities wisely and effectively.