Author: Dr. Dino Patti Djalal, Founder, Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia
(This report was published in May 2017)
The survey on America’s Role in the Asia Pacific conducted in Indonesia this year indicates some important shifts in the perceptions of the Indonesian respondents. It is obvious that the 2016 United States presidential election was a significant factor in these shifts. At the time of the survey respondents were still in the dark regarding the Trump Administration’s foreign policy, including its Asia policy and the state of United States – Indonesia relations.
A shift is clearly evident on the question of America’s influence in Asia. When a similar question was asked last year, the U.S. had a clear lead over China and Japan (47% to 22% and 25%). In the 2015 survey many respondents felt that the most influential country in Asia was China (42%) followed by America (32%) and Japan (17%). The US decrease (15%) was larger than the drop experienced by Japan (8%). It can be assumed that the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, which reflected unpredictability and President Trump’s “America First” world view, helped shape this changing perception towards the United States. This trend also applies to the longterm perception.
In 2015 the United States was seen as the most influential country in the next 10 years, ahead of China, Japan and other countries. This year those who held that view about the United States remained the same (at 34%), but this was second to those who believe that China will be the most influential country in Asia in the coming decade (at 42 %) which is a considerable 13 point rise from the previous survey (Figure 32).
Indonesian respondents’ more favourable views about China represent a considerable rise compared to respondents from Australia, China, Japan, and Korea. This may relate to the fact that twice as many Indonesian respondents believe that the United States best years are “in the past” compared to those who said “in the future”. However, the United States is also seen as a country with by far the most influential role in setting rules for international affairs compared to China, Russia, and other countries.
It is worth noting that when respondents were asked about United States’ influence in Asia today compared to 10 years ago, only 26% believed that it had decreased, while 35% said it had “stayed about the same”, 18% believed it had “increased a little”, 16% believed it had “moderately increased” and 5% believed it had “greatly increased”. It should be remembered however, that 10 years ago marked the end of the Presidency of George. W. Bush; a time when the US international image was problematic in the aftermath of the unpopular Iraq war.
When respondents were asked more specifically about the United States’ influence in the next five years under the presidency of Donald Trump, most replied that the United States could be a negative influence (44%), compared to “positive influence” (29%) and “neither positive nor negative” (27%). What is interesting is that when the same question was posed without mentioning President Donald Trump in the sentence, the answer was much more positive with 38% of respondents believing that over the next five years the United States will have a positive influence compared to 26% who believe it will have a negative influence.
On the question of whether the United States does more good or harm to the Asia-Pacific region, 32% responded with “more harm”, slightly more than those who responded with “more good” (30%), while the rest believed about the same amount of “good and harm” (38%) (Figure 33). These numbers are approximately the same as the last survey’s results. When a similar question was posed about China, more Indonesian respondents believed that China would bring “more good than harm” (35%) compared to those who believe that China would bring “more harm than good” (22%).
When Indonesian respondents were asked “what the relationship with the United States should be”, the number who said “stronger” was much higher than those who said “weaker” (42% to 18%), while 40% thought it should “stay the same”. Interestingly, the Indonesian results for those who said the relationship should be “stronger” was lower than respondents in Japan, Korea, and China but higher than respondents in Australia. When the same relationship question was posed about China, more than half of Indonesian respondents felt that Indonesia’s relationship with China should be stronger (52%) compared to those who felt it should be “weaker” (14%).
When Indonesian respondents were asked about the United States’ influence on Indonesia, those who said “great deal” or “a lot” (46%) were slightly higher than who said “a moderate amount” (38%) while the rest said “a little” (13%). Furthermore, when a similar question was asked about China’s influence on Indonesia, the majority of Indonesian respondents said “a great deal” and “a lot” (58%) which is higher than when the same question was asked in the previous survey (44%). Significantly, Indonesian respondents have a positive view about U.S. influence on Indonesia in general. Those who said the U.S. has a “positive” influence (40%) is much higher than those who said the opposite (25%) while (38%) said the U.S. influence in Indonesia is “neither positive nor negative”.
Indonesian respondents also have a generally positive perception of the United States economic engagement with Indonesia. Those who said United States – Indonesia relations are “good for the country” (43%) was much higher than those who said it is “bad for the country” (14%). Similarly, those who said that US investment is “good for Indonesia” (42%) is about three times higher than those who viewed otherwise. This is despite the fact that the survey was taken in the midst of high profile controversy over an American mining company in Indonesia. Interestingly, Indonesian respondents who favour U.S. investments are considerably fewer than those in China and India.
There is however, an interesting twist in Indonesian respondents’ views towards United States military presence in the Asia Pacific. Slightly more respondents believe that it should be increased than those who said it “should stay the same” (42% to 40%), while 17% believe it “should be decreased”. Indonesian respondents who favour greater US military presence in the Asia Pacific are higher than respondents in Japan and Korea. Most Indonesian respondents also believe that the U.S. is likely to keep its promise to defend its allies in the Asia-Pacific if they were attacked. It also worth noting that an overwhelming majority of Indonesian respondents described the relations between China and the US as “competitors”.
Another interesting finding pertains to attitude towards Free Trade Agreements where more Indonesian respondents “favour” FTAs (53%) compared to those who “neither favour nor oppose” (28%) and those who “oppose” (20%). In the context of Indonesian political culture where free trade has been generally seen as suspect, this is welcome news. Similarly, when Indonesian respondents were asked their opinion on foreign investment in Indonesia that delivers important services such as electricity, water, transport, and communication, the 37% who said that it is “good for the country” is considerably higher than those who said it is “bad for the country” (24%), while 39% have a neutral attitude.
When Indonesian respondents were asked “what is the toughest challenge for the United States”, the majority of respondents believed it is the rise of radical Islam (31%), compared to debt and slow economic growth (28%), domestic political divisions (21%), and domestic racial and ethnic issues (20%). When the same question was asked in the previous survey, most Indonesian respondents believed that “China’s increasing economic power” is the toughest challenge for the United States. Moreover, in the context of the rise of radical Islam, most Indonesian respondents believed that Indonesia and the United States should “greatly extend” their cooperation in dealing with ISIS (45%) which was slightly higher than those who said “moderately extend” (42%).
Sixty seven percent of Indonesian respondents believed that there will be a serious military conflict between the United States and China, of which half of those who said it is “very likely” (31%). An overwhelming number of respondents also feared that there will be serious military conflict between the U.S. and Russia (73%). This concern persisted despite media reports that President Donald Trump was actively seeking closer relations with Russia. When Indonesian respondents were asked about the possibility of a serious military conflict between Indonesia and Australia, 42% of respondents said it is “likely” which is twice as many as those who said it is “not at all likely” (21%) (Figure 34). This somehow reflects the love-hate relationship between Indonesia and Australia in the past 10 years.
Interestingly we found that most Indonesian respondents were not aware that the United States is not a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Regional Cooperative Economic Partnership (RCEP), or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Fifty five percent of Indonesian respondents believed that the U.S. “was a member” of the AIIB, 64% thought that the U.S. was a member of the RCEP, and 67% thought that the U.S. was a member of the UNCLOS.
When Indonesian respondents were asked about which country has the closest relationship with President Joko Widodo’s government, nearly half believed it was Saudi Arabia (47%), followed by China (38%), and the U.S. (6%) (Figure 35). This finding is not surprising since Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, many of whom go to Mecca each year. This is also correlates to the fact that most Indonesian respondents believed that Saudi Arabia (36%) is “the most friendly” country to Indonesia followed by, interestingly, Malaysia (17%), Singapore (13%), China (11%) and Japan (10%). However, most of the Indonesian respondents said “Malaysia” (41%) when they were asked “which country is the most hostile towards Indonesia” nearly twice as many as those who said Australia (22%), and the United States (13%).
When it comes to the question of “in which single area can the United States assist Indonesia most”, 38% of Indonesian respondents thought it is in military and defence, 25% said in education, 14% in infrastructure, 12% in trade and investment and 11% in maritime development (Figure 36). However, when asked the same question in relation to China, an overwhelming majority of Indonesian respondents thought that China could assist Indonesia the most in trade and investment (70%), followed by those who thought it could be in infrastructure (14%).
When summarising the results of the survey, Indonesian respondents generally have scepticism towards immigrants. When asked about whether they believed immigrants will take jobs away from them almost all said “it is likely” (97%). This is the highest result compared to respondents from other countries such as Japan (87%), Korea (86%), Australia (84%), India (77%), and China (72%). Furthermore, when asked whether “immigrants are good for economy”, the majority of Indonesian respondents said “disagree” (47%) a much higher result than those who said “agree” (24%) while 30% said “neither agree nor disagree”. This may correlate to the fact that when Indonesian respondents were asked “how important it was to have been born in the country”, an overwhelming majority said “important” (90%), which was much higher than Indian respondents (78%), Chinese respondents (68%), Japanese respondents (59%), Korean respondents (52%), and Australia (41%).
When Indonesian respondents were asked if the country would be better off in isolation and did not concern itself with the problems in other part of the world, 74% said “disagree” (while 26% said “agree” (26%). This result reflects an internationalist disposition which is the basis of Indonesia’s “independent and active” foreign policy.