Vaccines, not spy planes: U.S. misfires in Southeast Asia

October 28, 2020 - 12:55 PM
A man works in a laboratory of Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac Biotech, developing an experimental coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, during a government-organized media tour in Beijing, China, September 24, 2020. (Reuters/Thomas Peter/File Photo)

JAKARTA — For months, by Zoom calls and then by jet, Indonesian ministers and officials scoured the world for access to a vaccine for the coronavirus that Southeast Asia’s biggest country is struggling to control. This month, their campaign paid off.

Three Chinese companies committed 250 million doses of vaccines to the archipelago of 270 million people. A letter of intent was signed with a UK-based company for another 100 million.

Absent from these pledges: the United States.

Not only was it not promising any vaccine, but months earlier the United States shocked Indonesian officials by asking to land and refuel its spy planes in the territory, four senior Indonesian officials told Reuters. This would reverse a decades-long policy of strategic neutrality in the country.

With the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo due to visit Jakarta on Oct. 29, Washington’s campaign to buttress its influence in the region – part of its escalating global rivalry with China – has been misfiring, say government officials and analysts.

On the other hand, China – Indonesia and the region’s biggest investor and trading partner – has won ground with vaccines and trade.

America’s strategic interests converge with those of many others in the region; Washington opposes Beijing’s island-building and militarization of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei dispute China’s territorial claim to over 90% of the waterway.

Indonesia does not have a formal claim to the waters, but it, too, opposes China’s claim. China is less popular among Indonesians than the United States, according to polling in 2018 by the Pew Research Center, a think-tank in Washington.

This is an edge that the United States under President Donald Trump has blunted, according to interviews with more than a dozen government officials, former diplomats and analysts. Meanwhile China is managing to parlay its economic heft and early recovery from coronavirus restrictions to strategic advantage, they said.

“The U.S uses sanctions and muscle too much,” said one Indonesian government source. “China is smart. It always uses the soft power approach, the economic approach, the development approach.”

Pompeo said ahead of his visit that there are issues where the United States has already improved the relationship between the countries, “but there’s more that we can do.”

U.S. assistant secretary of State David Stillwell said separately the U.S. was working to build a “stronger economic partnership” with Indonesia and the United States had donated 1,000 ventilators to the country, part of a $12.5 million coronavirus aid package.

Spy planes

A former Dutch colony with hundreds of ethnic groups scattered over more than 17,000 islands, Indonesia is a founder member of the non-aligned movement, an alliance of developing countries which agreed after World War Two to avoid any defence tie-ups that serve the interests of the big powers. Since emerging from authoritarian rule 22 years ago, it has never allowed foreign militaries to stage operations on its soil, although it does conduct military exercises with other nations.

With this in mind, Indonesian officials said it was a surprise when the United States made multiple high-level approaches in late July and early August to Indonesia’s defence and foreign ministers to grant landing and refueling rights to its P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft. These play a central role in monitoring China’s military activity in Southeast Asia.

The proposal – first reported by Reuters – was swiftly rejected after it was reviewed by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, commonly known as “Jokowi,” the officials said.

Pompeo declined to comment on the rebuff. The U.S. Defense department declined to comment, as did spokespeople for Indonesia’s government.

Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia have allowed P-8s to fly in and out of their territory; Washington’s request was more political than operational, said Euan Graham, an Asia-Pacific security analyst attached to the Shangri-la Dialogue, an annual meeting of regional security chiefs.

The P-8 bid was part of a region-wide U.S. diplomatic blitz that began in mid-July with three days of speeches by Pompeo and other senior U.S. officials denouncing China’s conduct in the South China Sea.

As well as declaring China’s territorial claims unlawful, the United States accused Beijing of “gangster tactics,” saying Beijing denies Southeast Asian states the opportunity to develop the sea’s resources. Washington has also announced sanctions on Chinese firms and individuals that help China build military installations on islands, atolls and shoals in the waters. China bases its claim in the South China Sea on what it calls “historic rights.”

Repeated incursions into Indonesia’s waters by Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels are an emotive issue in Indonesia, where there is a strong nationalist streak. The presence of about 36,000 Chinese workers in Indonesia – one-third of all foreign workers according to government data – has also riled many Indonesians.

In the past, the government has blown up Chinese and other foreign fishing vessels.

Senior officials say Indonesia has told China bluntly of its concerns of its aggression in the South China Sea this year. In July, Indonesia held military exercises in the portion of the waterway its claims as its exclusive economic zone.

But Indonesian officials said Washington’s response to China has been unnecessarily combative. Adding to their anxiety, they said, was a growing fear that military conflict was brewing after the U.S. and China held major military exercises in the South China Sea within sight of each other near the contested Paracel Islands on July 4.

Foreign minister Retno responded to the rising superpower tensions in the region by contacting her counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum via their WhatsApp group. It was, said Retno, a “very fluid and intensive communication” that quickly led to a joint statement on Aug. 8 decrying the “detrimental ramifications” of “changing geo-political dynamics in the region.”

Vaccine diplomacy

President Jokowi, a former furniture manufacturer and exporter, has a plan to transform Indonesia’s economy and set a course for the country to become one of the world’s top five economies by 2045. That vision took a body-blow from the coronavirus pandemic.

With fewer than 400,000 infections and 14,000 deaths, Indonesia’s official coronavirus burden is much lighter than many other big countries. However, epidemiologists and public health experts say very low rates of testing and contact-tracing mean the official figures significantly underestimate the spread and the government can’t suppress the virus. An estimated 10 million Indonesians have fallen back into poverty and Indonesia’s economic outlook has been downgraded repeatedly by the government and international agencies.

Jokowi has said the government’s response to the pandemic and prospects for economic recovery are good compared to other countries.

Early access to a vaccine is Indonesia’s only shot at controlling the pandemic, said Greg Poling, a Southeast Asia analyst from the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It’s the silver bullet,” he told Reuters in an interview. “They have to get the vaccine as fast as possible.”

Jokowi’s close confidant and Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, Luhut Pandjaitan, gave the president cause for hope when he returned in October from China’s Yunnan province with promised supplies of vaccines, which are in phase three trials, as well as a pledge to help Indonesia manufacture and export one of the vaccines to other countries.

“It is very easy dealing with the Chinese and they actually executed almost all of their promises and commitments,” said a senior adviser who travelled to Yunnan with Pandjaitan.

The U.S., grappling with one of the world’s most severe COVID-19 outbreaks, has hoarded its vaccines, withdrawn from the World Health Organization and, unlike China, refused to join a WHO-sponsored plan to pool vaccines and distribute them to countries based on need.

“They are completely ceding the field to China,” said Aaron Connelly, an analyst with Singapore’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.

On his trip to Yunnan, Pandjaitan also secured almost $20 billion in funding from Chinese companies for a pet project of the president: a plan to build a lithium battery factory and nickel processing industry, the adviser said. Next month, senior government officials say Indonesia is expected to sign the world’s biggest trade pact – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – that involves ASEAN states and China, but not the U.S. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been reviewing Indonesia’s preferential trade status, to the alarm of Jakarta.

‘Not only China’

Indonesian officials and analysts say the Trump administration has made several unforced diplomatic errors in Southeast Asia. These started in 2018 when Trump did not attend the U.S.-ASEAN summit. In 2019, he sent his national security adviser, a relatively junior government member, prompting seven of the region’s 10 leaders to boycott the event. Washington has not appointed an ambassador to ASEAN since 2017.

Connelly said Pompeo’s confrontational rhetoric – he has described the Chinese Communist Party as the “greatest threat” to the U.S. – makes Southeast Asian states less willing to cooperate with the United States.

“He makes it about the U.S. versus China, rather than what China is doing to Southeast Asia,” he said.

Dino Patti Djalal, an Indonesian ambassador to the United States from 2010 to 2013, said Pompeo’s “aggressively anti-China rhetoric” was, in part, targeting a domestic political audience as the Trump administration tries to deflect criticism of its handling of the coronavirus onto China.

Trump’s push to cast China as the villain because the virus originated there had not resonated with Southeast Asian governments, he said, while China’s vaccine diplomacy and its early economic recovery will serve Beijing well strategically.

“China is smartly and strategically using the COVID crisis to advance their relationships (in the region),” he said. “They are striking that theme they have always been pushing: When there are difficulties, it is China, not the U.S., that you can rely on.”

Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi says Indonesia wants to engage with as many countries as possible when it comes to combating the coronavirus and developing its economy, including the U.S. This, she told Reuters, was the essence of Indonesia’s “independent and active” foreign policy.

“It’s not only China,” she said.

—Reporting by Tom Allard; Edited by Sara Ledwith