WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden celebrated a “new era” in the relationship between the United States and Indonesia as he met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the White House on Monday, formalising closer ties with the world’s third largest democracy and a heavyweight player in Southeast Asia.
The announcement is a reflection of US commitment to the region before Biden heads to San Francisco for a summit of Asian leaders, where he’s scheduled to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Washington and Beijing have been jockeying for influence in Southeast Asia, which is a critical crossroads for trade and a potential flashpoint for global conflict.
“This will mark a new era in relations between the United States and Indonesia across the board,” Biden said, sitting next to Widodo.
He added that Widodo, the leader of a tropical archipelago, mentioned that he was cold when he stepped out of his vehicle at the White House. Biden joked, “I told him I could take care of that immediately,” and there was a roaring fire in the Oval Office fireplace.
Biden and Widodo are expected to share an afternoon tea and meet with top advisers as part of their new strategic partnership. Also on the agenda will be expanding the trade of critical minerals like nickel, which can be used to produce electric vehicle batteries. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of nickel.
Widodo described the US as one of Indonesia’s most important partners, and he said they must give “real meaning” to their strengthened relationship.
But there were also signs of friction over the war between Israel and Hamas. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, and Widodo arrived in Washington after attending a summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where leaders criticised the Israeli bombardment and invasion of Gaza.
Widodo urged the US “to do more to stop the atrocities in Gaza and have a ceasefire for the sake of humanity.”
Biden has resisted calls for a ceasefire, although he’s asked Israel to show more restraint in its military operations and called for pauses in the fighting that would allow the delivery of humanitarian aid or the release of hostages held by Hamas.
The White House has cultivated ties with Indonesia in recent years. Biden attended the Group of 20 summit in Bali last year, and Vice President Kamala Harris attended a regional summit in Jakarta in September.
Before visiting the White House, Widodo stopped at Georgetown University, which is planning a new program in Indonesia. Widodo has described improving educational opportunities as critical for his country’s development.
He said that a closer relationship with the US could pay dividends because “the United States is a big country, and its influence to any other country is also very big.”
But he also was careful to emphasise Indonesia’s neutrality at a time of tension between Washington and Beijing.
“Indonesia is always open to cooperate with any country, and not to take the side of any power, except to take the side of peace and humanity,” he said.
Widodo also raised alarms about the death toll in Gaza, mentioning estimates that a child is killed every ten minutes.
“Human life seems meaningless, but for me, every life is precious,” he said. “This is a humanitarian problem, and to end it requires global solidarity, global leadership which prioritises humanity.”