Strike Two - Postponement of Obama Trip to Indonesia & Australia
March 18, 2010
The White House has come full circle on President Obama’s trip to Indonesia and Australia. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs announced today that the president would postpone the trip to remain in Washington for the crucial final push on his health care reform package. The visit, originally planned for June or July, is now back on the calendar for June. But only after two aborted attempts to make the trip in March.
For most U.S. presidents and most bilateral relationships, two consecutive postponements would put real strains on relations. In this case, I believe President Obama will be given a very easy pass on this second strike, and the postponement back to the originally planned date is almost welcome in Jakarta and Canberra.
For both President Susilio Bambang Yudhuyono of Indonesia and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia speeding up the visit to March was going to be a challenge. In Indonesia, Yudhuyono is in the midst of dealing with serious corruption allegations—fueled if not funded by his political foes—against key members of his team around the Bank Century issue. In Australia, Rudd can use an “Obama boost” to accelerate momentum before he faces the polls later this year. The summer may be better timing for him politically too.
And the bureaucracies in all three countries—Australia, Indonesia, and the United States—were working day and night to prepare the substantive elements of the trip. To be honest and fair, a visit next week was going to be a challenge, especially in terms of producing concrete deliverables. Given an extension to June, I expect to see a lot more meat on the bone of the U.S.-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership, and President Obama can turn to the U.S. Senate and demand passage of the U.S.-Australia Treaty on Defense Trade Cooperation as a return payment for his remaining in Washington to finish health care.
The postponement may also allow the president to bring the first lady and their daughters on the trip. This is clearly important to him and will resonate deeply in Indonesia and to a lesser but significant extent in Australia.
Finally, by postponing the trip to the summer, President Obama has the additional policy option of engaging ASEAN and exploring whether the second ASEAN-U.S. Summit might be held in Hanoi during his visit. This could not have happened in March, but with a couple months of preparation, it may be possible to organize the summit in Vietnam, which is the chair of ASEAN this year. That move would make a lot of sense and take the pressure off an awkward set of dates this fall that would have required some creative scheduling to fit in the ASEAN-U.S. Summit in Hanoi, the APEC Leaders Summit in Japan, and the G-20 Meeting in Korea.
By holding the ASEAN-U.S. Summit in Hanoi, the White House can properly celebrate 15 years of bilateral relations with Vietnam, honor Hanoi’s 1,000th birthday, strengthen ties with a strategically important bilateral partner in Vietnam, and underline serious U.S. commitment to engagement in ASEAN by doing the summit in the chair’s country.
The bottom line is the White House gets an easy pass on this postponement. While that is true, it is also a second strike and the stakes are now very high for following through with the trip in June. A third strike and the Obama administration will find itself trapped in its own rhetoric, having staked out the high ground and saying it understands that “being there” is vital for sustained and serious engagement in Southeast Asia.
Ernest Z. 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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