President Obama's Asia Travel: Why Getting to Indonesia Matters

U.S. president Barack Obama will visit four countries, attend two summits, and seek to elevate two strategic relationships during his November trip. As he takes flight from Andrews Air Force Base, the president will know the results of U.S. midterm elections and be able to do the calculus on where he needs to go to effectively lead the country in the second half of his first term.

Asia is an important part of that calculation because it is the source of global economic growth—a vital link for sustained U.S. recovery—and a keystone for future American security. In this context, the president will visit India, Indonesia, Republic of Korea—for the G20 Summit and bilateral issues including finalizing the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS)—and Japan for the APEC Leaders’ Summit.

Q1: Why does Indonesia matter to the United States?

A1: Indonesia matters because it is the fourth-largest country in the world, the third-largest democracy, and the incoming ASEAN chair and anchor—since it is at least twice as big in terms of both population and economy than the next largest ASEAN country. It is also home to the largest number of Muslims living under one flag—and its economic development and democratic success story tell an important story about Islam’s clear compatibility with peace, freedom, and prosperity. Getting it right with Indonesia has been a goal for the Obama administration from the beginning. Getting there has been hard—the president has had to postpone his trip three times due to U.S. political pressures. However, there is clear understanding that the United States can’t have a strong relationship with ASEAN without a strong relationship with Indonesia, and the United States has embarked on an Asia strategy that puts ASEAN as the fulcrum of new regional security and trade architecture. The stakes are high in Jakarta.

Q2: What will President Obama do in Jakarta?

A2: The most important accomplishments of his visit to Jakarta will be the following:

  1. Reset the tone and tenor of the relationship. Failing three times to come for a visit places a strain on even good relations and resulted in Indonesian president Yudhoyono passing on accepting President Obama’s invitation to the 2nd ASEAN-U.S. Leaders Meeting in New York City in late September. An ASEAN meeting without the Indonesians is suboptimal at best. The visit will realign the world’s third- and fourth-largest countries.
  2. Launch the comprehensive partnership. The partnership includes major initiatives in trade and investment, maritime security, counterterrorism, higher education, and climate change cooperation and effectively enhances ties with Indonesia to a substantively new level.
  3. Anchor the United States in ASEAN and regional security architecture. Indonesia is chairing ASEAN and will host the East Asia Summit (EAS) next year. Alignment with the chair and host is vital to enable the United States to have input on the agenda and help influence the direction of discussions on key issues ranging from the South China Sea to security cooperation to alignment on transnational issues.
  4. Promote compatibility with Islam on a global level. President Obama will make an address at Istiqlal Mosque, addressing Indonesians in a speech described as building on the ideas in his Cairo speech in June 2009, where he called for “a new beginning” between the United States and the Muslim world. The president is likely to link the success of efforts by Southeast Asia’s Muslims to sustainable economic models and democratic governance structures.
  5. Strengthen security and military-to-military ties with Indonesia. The United States virtually cut off contact with the Indonesian military (referred to by the Indonesian acronym TNI) for nearly two decades over concerns about human rights abuses in East Timor and Aceh under President Soeharto and his immediate successor. The Obama administration has worked to reopen ties by working with President Yudhoyono to secure a promise that his Special Forces unit, Kopassus, would have its members identified with past human right violations punished and would act decisively on any future violations. That commitment is being tested as a video showing members of the Indonesian armed forces beating up separatist activists in West Papua province has appeared on YouTube. President Yudhoyono has called for decisive action to punish those involved. Renewed U.S.-Indonesian military ties are fundamental as a foundation for efforts by U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates to engage and provide leadership at the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus—a vital new network of the defense ministers from the EAS countries kicked off in Hanoi last month.

Q3: Why has it been hard for President Obama to get to Asia, and why does it matter to the United States?

A3: Engagement in Asia has not been an easy sell in the pantheon of American domestic politics—it is far away, not well understood, and to some, a scary harbinger of lost jobs and a new era of economic competition. President Obama, who spent some years of his childhood growing up in Indonesia, knows the importance of the large country intuitively. He wants to go and transform the relationship along the lines President Bush did with India—to raise ties to an enhanced and strategic level. Three times the recommendation came from his foreign policy and national security deputies to make the trip, and three times it was canceled at the political level in the West Wing. With Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel headed to Chicago to run for mayor and the midterm elections about to be history, the president is focusing appropriately on Asia. Economists around the world agree that Asia is going to be the source of global economic growth for the next decade and beyond. Tapping into that dynamism is vital for sustained recovery in the United States. Further, the future of American security clearly lies in Asia as well. Rising giants China and India have new requirements and expectations, and the United States has made the careful determination to be part of new security architecture—the East Asia Summit—and to be a leader among the community of nations that works to bring them into the region as responsible contributors to peace and prosperity.

Q4: What do Asian leaders expect from President Obama?

A4: Asian leaders want to know if the U.S. economic recovery is sustainable for two reasons. First, the United States is the largest market in the world, and its health and trajectory directly impact their own economic well being and stability. Second, they are carefully assessing American power and trying to ascertain whether a renewed American focus on Asia is sustainable. They want to know the answer to President Obama’s political math question in the important area of trade. Will the United States return to a leadership role on trade? Asian counterparts believe the test for this is whether President Obama invests his political capital in passing the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement after the midterm elections. If not, leaders in the region will make new determinations about where economic leadership may come from in the next decades, and U.S. leadership will be questioned.

Q5: Are the trips by the president and by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a strategy to “contain” China?

A5: The trips by the president and secretary of state are not part of a strategy to contain China. The trips represent tactics that (1) outline a developing U.S. strategy to recognize American interests in Asia, (2) mandate a commitment to strengthening relations with allies and strategic partners in the region, (3) ensure U.S. engagement and influence sufficient to build regional institutions in which the United States has a seat at the table, and (4) help China, India, or any significant power to enter the region in a manner consistent with promoting peace, growth, and leadership on important global issues such as nuclear nonproliferation and climate change.

Ernest Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Ernest Z. Bower