Regional Responses to U.S.-China Competition in the Indo-Pacific


by Jonah Blank


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Research Questions

  1. What factors might provide a rationale for increased cooperation between the United States and Indonesia in responding to China's more assertive behavior in the Indo-Pacific region?
  2. What factors might mitigate expectations about Indonesia's willingness to take sides regarding U.S.-China competition?
  3. How do Indonesia's formulators and implementers of security policy in the civilian and military spheres, as well as the broader public, view China, and how do they view Indonesia's potential relationship with a rising China?

The U.S. Department of Defense's (DoD's) 2018 National Defense Strategy highlights the importance of working with regional allies and partners in order to manage China's rise as a strategic competitor to the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. In this country-level report in a series, the author examines the potential for, and potential impediments to, partnering more closely with Indonesia.

In many ways, Indonesia is a natural partner: Its self-defined core national security interests, including the preservation of its sovereignty against encroachment by any would-be hegemonic regional power, are in relatively close harmony with those of the United States. But U.S. planners must be keenly aware of the constraints on Indonesia's willingness and capacity to forge a partnership based on strategic competition with China. These constraints include persistent aversion to any partnership that might be characterized as "alignment"; enduring antiforeign attitudes, particularly in military circles; strong desire to balance security engagement among the widest possible array of nations; deep and growing economic linkages with China; an institutional mindset for the military that is geared more toward internal stability than external defense; historical and ongoing underfunding of basic military needs; and a lack of military capability and interoperability sufficient for frictionless interaction with U.S. forces. Although Indonesia will remain an important U.S. partner, such challenges should moderate expectations about the pace for increased engagement.

Key Findings

The United States and Indonesia share deep concern about China's ambitions for regional dominance and willingness to violate international norms in pursuit of these ambitions

  • Both states, however, would prefer a strategy that corrals China into compliance with global norms over one based on military confrontation.

Indonesia remains fiercely opposed to what its strategists term blocs

  • It is highly suspicious of the intentions of any foreign powers.

Indonesia regards China as its only realistic near-term military foe, with a specific potential for military confrontation over its Natuna Islands near the South China Sea

  • But because of the imbalance of military capabilities, as well as China's enormous economic leverage, Indonesia has very little appetite for military confrontation.

Many items in the U.S. playbook of security engagement will run into institutional barriers in Indonesia

  • These barriers include low levels of military funding, a security policymaking bureaucracy that is not designed for speedy decisions, and a tendency to make security policy on an ad hoc rather than a doctrinal basis.


  • The U.S. government should accept Indonesia's deep-seated desire for nonalignment. In practice, this means that the United States should refrain from actions that Indonesia is likely to interpret as forcing it into a de facto alliance: for example, pushing for high-profile advertising of security cooperation with the United States, when Indonesia might prefer greater rhetorical balance.
  • The U.S. government should pay particular attention to consultation and protocol. In any meeting with U.S. counterparts, the "deliverables" for Indonesian interlocutors might include courtesy calls, official parades or displays, and any other displays of courtesy.
  • The U.S. government should reexamine the legal issues surrounding crew lists. The United States, unlike most other nations, refuses to provide crew lists for U.S. Navy vessels in Indonesian ports.
  • DoD and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) should increase emphasis on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR), which Indonesian National Military doctrine describes as a core mission. HA/DR improves interoperability, does not impinge on Indonesia's nonaligned status, and lends itself to multilateral exercises.
  • DoD and the USAF should enhance U.S.-Indonesia cooperation in the areas of cyber and electronic warfare. The Indonesian Army is now significantly ahead of its air force counterpart in the cyber arena, and this might be a useful area for USAF engagement.
  • DoD and the USAF should encourage Indonesia to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific region, including participation in multilateral air and maritime activities and conducting operations in the South China Sea—while being aware that such participation might be modest.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Indonesia in the Context of U.S.-China Competition

  • Chapter Two

    Indonesia's Geostrategic Importance, Institutional Outlook, and Desire for Nonalignment in Diplomatic and Political Relations

  • Chapter Three

    Indonesia's Economic Relationship with China, and Country-by-Country Relationship Sketches

  • Chapter Four

    Assessment and Outlook

  • Chapter Five

    Options for the United States, U.S. Department of Defense, and U.S. Air Force

  • Appendix A

    Detailed Framework Variable Coding

  • Appendix B

    Overview of Indonesia's Military

  • Appendix C

    Indonesia's Security Policymaking

  • Appendix D

    Politics, Public Opinion, Other Sources of Influence, and Outlook

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by Brig Gen Michael P. Winkler (PACAF/A5/8) and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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