It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the task ahead for Governor Branstad, or the challenges entailed in his new position. Some of these challenges will come not from inside the borders of China, but from Indonesia, a nation of critical importance to U.S. national security interests.
American geopolitical observers are aware of China’s growing influence on the global stage, and the widely held belief that China, Russia, North Korea, and Islamist extremism represent the most significant global challenges to the United States.
As China’s power grows, so too does its appetite for expansion, manifested most clearly by its frequent military incursions into the South China Sea. As Governor Branstad transitions into his role as ambassador, few issues are in more urgent need of attention than the destabilizing effect that this increasing militarism is having throughout Southeast Asia.
Indonesia serves as an important case in point, but one that rarely finds its way into the headlines. Indonesia is on the front lines of China’s budding expansionism. China’s actions have set Southeast Asia on edge and compelled the Indonesian Air Force to conduct the largest drills in its history last fall in hopes of deterring Chinese aggression. Indonesia also is partnering with Japan to boost the nation’s maritime security in the face of growing Chinese naval activity. Elsewhere in the region, the United States and the Philippines conducted military exercises to include amphibious landings. China’s South China Sea buildup is adding to tensions in a region already threatened by North Korean missile tests.
Indonesian stability is vital to American national security interests not only because of its position on the frontier of China’s expansion, but also due to the essential role the nation plays as a model of interfaith relations amid nearly constant clashes between hard-liners and less extreme Islamists in other parts of the world. Indonesia has the largest population of Muslim citizens on the globe, and throughout much of its history, the nation’s practice of Islam has been moderate, tolerant, and accepting of other cultures and religions.
The nation’s broad Muslim majority regularly elects leaders from different faiths. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the current governor of Jakarta, for example, is a Christian who generally has been regarded as a strong leader. Mr. Purnama was expected to win re-election during the gubernatorial election on Feb. 15 until he was accused of insulting Islam. The accusations sparked widespread protests, seemingly igniting a surge in prominence among a more traditional and radical Islamic community. He did not win the requisite 50 percent of the vote, so the election will progress with a runoff in April. The election has been called a “litmus test” for Indonesian Islam, asking and perhaps answering the question of what will happen to the nation’s historically moderate and tolerant Muslim community when religion is politicized.
Whatever the outcome of the election, competing perspectives within Indonesia will continue to press their views of Islam. Purnama’s potential defeat will not undo the nation’s long history of tolerance. But it will put added pressure on that tolerance, and it could create a landscape that is more conducive to the spread of radical Islam.
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As Governor Branstad assumes his new role, Indonesia deserves his close attention, and the attention of the rest of the new Trump administration focused on preserving American national security interests overseas as well. With the right support from its allies, Indonesia will continue to serve as a beacon for moderate, tolerant Islam and a safeguard against the creeping spread of Chinese influence.
Without this support, Indonesia could be pushed in the wrong direction by either of these complex but closely connected dynamics.
• Brigadier General Steven J. Feldmann, U.S. Army, retired, studied Counterterrorism at the National War College and focused on Islamic Terrorism after graduating. He was the Chief of Staff for the 19th Theater Support Command in Korea in 2004-05 and was deployed to Afghanistan and Kuwait in 2008-09 and 2011-12.