CSIS Critical Questions – President Obama's Asia Travel: Why Getting to Indonesia Matters?

By Ernie Bower, Senior Adviser & Director CSIS Southeast Asia Program


US 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 Forces base, the president will know the results of US 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 US 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 US Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) and Japan – for the APEC Leaders’ Summit.

Q1>  Why does Indonesia matter to the US?

A1> Indonesia matters because it is the fourth largest country in the world, the third largest democracy and the incoming 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 tells 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 US political pressures.  However, there is clear understanding that the US can’t have a strong relationship with ASEAN without a strong relationship with Indonesia, and the US 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 to come three times puts a strain on even good relationships, and has resulted in Indonesian President Yudhoyono passing on accepting President Obama’s invitation to the 2nd ASEAN US 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 3rd and 4th largest countries.

2.    Launch the Comprehensive Partnership.  The partnership includes major initiatives in trade and investment, maritime security, counter-terrorism, higher education, and climate change cooperation and effectively enhances ties with Indonesia to a substantively new level.

3.    Anchor the US in ASEAN & 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 US 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 being 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 Southeast Asia’s Muslims’ efforts to sustainable economic models and democratic governance structures.

5.    Strengthen security and military to military ties with Indonesia.  The US 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 called Kopassus would have its members identified with past human right violations punished and act decisively on any future violations.  That commitment is being tested as a video showing members of the Indoensian 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 US – Indonesian military ties are fundamental as a foundation for efforts by US 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 mid-term 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 US has made the careful determination to be part of new security architecture – the East Asia Summit (EAS) – 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 US economic recovery is sustainable for two reasons. First, the US 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 US 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 US Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) after the mid-term elections.  If not, leaders in the region will make new determinations about where economic leadership may come from in the next decades and US leadership will be questioned.

Q5> Are the trips by the President’s trip and 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 outline a developing US strategy that recognizes American interests in Asia and mandates a commitment to strengthening relations with allies and strategic partners in the region to ensure US engagement and influence is at least sufficient build regional institutions with the US having a seat at the table and to help ensure China, India or any significant power enters the region in a manner that is consistent with promoting peace, growth and leadership on important global issues such as nuclear non-proliferation and climate change.


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