What was a delegation of Indonesian dignitaries doing at Donald Trump’s press briefing last Thursday, September 3? The delegation included House Speaker Setya Novanto, Deputy Speaker Fadli Zon, and three other deputy speakers.
Trump said they were there to join him in doing “great things for the United States.”
But that’s Trump. For him, America comes first. It’s not enough to ask what America can do for other countries. We must ask also what they can do for us. Life is a series of deals. Or, as every first year law student learns, a series of contracts.
Indonesian news source Okezone said the purpose was to discuss “strategic alliances between Indonesia and America going forward.” Does that sound like a foreign policy discussion?
Deputy Speaker Zon was indifferent to Trump’s criticisms of President Obama, despite what Okezone described as “Obama’s local boy cred,” saying that both were friends of Indonesia.
Indonesians like the fact that Trump has a number of business ventures in Indonesia.
Carly Fiorina may have negotiated with foreign governments, but Trump actually put his money there, and this shows folks that he believes in them. “We care about people who care also about Indonesia,” said Zon.
But what about the fact that Trump is xenophobic, Zon was asked. No, no, Zon explained. Trump “has no problem with… foreign people, with immigrants as long as it’s legal,” and there’s nothing xenophobic about that. Zon thinks that’s “very universal.” Who in his right mind wants people coming into his country illegally?
While in the U.S., the delegation would also attend a United Nations conference and meet with John Boehner and members of the Indonesian diaspora, according to Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir. Despite his “local boy cred,” no mention was made of meeting with Obama or John Kerry or any other Democrat. Weird, because Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, and Obama has made his affinity to Muslims very clear.
Perhaps one member of the Indonesian diaspora the delegation might meet with is Satya Hangga Yudha Widya Putra, currently a graduate student in global affairs at New York University. Having previously attended undergraduate school at Michigan State, Putra has come to know and admire the U.S., and also Donald Trump whom he sees as a role model for Indonesian politicians. A few days before Trump’s press briefing, Putra had an op-ed in the Jakarta Globe, an English language newspaper in Indonesia’s capital.
What impresses him is that Trump “leads by example.” He’s assertive and patriotic. He wants to create jobs in his country. His financial self-sufficiency makes him immune to corruption by special interests, which is a particular problem in Indonesia. He wants transparency in government. “Trump… will stand up for US interests in the face of a variety of threats, such as China’s currency manipulation,” Putra argues.
Interestingly, Indonesia has just become embroiled in a contretemps with China, involving lengthy negotiations that have been ongoing in connection with a proposed high-speed rail link over a 93-mile stretch, with nine stops, between Jakarta and Bandung. China proposed to build it for a whopping $5.6 billion. Indonesia abruptly terminated negotiations because it was a bad deal. The train would never reach top speed given the short distance and all the stops; a medium-speed rail link could do the same job at 40% less while adding only ten minutes to the commute; and why use state funds rather than outside investors to finance a desirable project?
The deal made sense for China, which wants to extend its influence in Southeast Asia. Japan, which is worried about China’s expansionist plans, also bid on the deal, but its bid wouldn’t cut the cost to Indonesia. And the U.S., which should be very worried about China’s hegemonic plans for the region, has been generally passive about its waning influence in world affairs. Obama has accepted Iran’s claim to hegemony in the Middle East, and seems prepared to concede the Chinese hegemony in the Far East.
Indonesia’s cancellation of negotiations makes sense for Indonesia. And for the United States. Might we ask whether the fact that it came one day after Trump’s meeting with the Indonesian delegation is a pure coincidence? We have no proof other than the fact that it is so Trumpian. If a deal’s bad, then renegotiate it.
The U.S. also shares with Indonesia a concern about Islamic terrorism. There is an important realignment taking place in the Muslim world amongst those who aren’t enamored of the prospect of a Muslim caliphate. In the Middle East, the divide is at present primarily along the Sunni-Shia divide, with the majority Shia countries being sympathetic to Iran, and the Sunni countries being generally resentful of Iran’s growing dominance in the area.
Over 87 percent of Indonesia’s population is Muslim. That’s 202.9 million people, but of these 56 percent identified themselves as neither Sunni nor Shia, but “just Muslim.” So Indonesia’s alignment would seem up for grabs. And Iran has been making a play for Indonesia, having been considerably freed by the soon-to-be-concluded nuke deal. This wouldn’t bother a President Obama, but it might bother a President Trump.
So again it’s interesting to read that in a meeting between Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Egyptian President Al-Sisi on the evening of September 4, the two parties agreed to cooperate to fight terrorism. Egypt is part of an emerging Muslim coalition that is suspicious of Obama and his nuke deal Iran. Drawing Indonesia into the anti-Iran alliance would be a huge benefit for the U.S. Might this be another part of Donald Trump’s emerging foreign policy?
Trump has taken some flak for his foreign policy chops, after an interview with Hugh Hewitt. I don’t buy it. It was a radio interview, and over the phone you don’t always hear the difference between “Quds” and “Kurds.” That’s not important. What’s important is that Trump is the last person you’d expect to demonstrate Obama’s affinity for countries that hate us.