In The News

A New Day for U.S.-Indonesia Relations

February 25, 2009

The significance of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Asia tour has been a topic of great discussion in the media over the past week. Including Indonesia as a stop on her first trip as America’s top diplomat, signals the growing importance of Southeast Asia to the United States, and, for Indonesians, it seemed to pay tribute to the country’s hard-won political freedoms over the past decade. In Indonesia, the implications of Secretary Clinton’s visit, the timing of it, the sequence (after Japan and before China), the visitors she met (Muslim leaders carefully interspersed with ‘secular’ civil society actors and women activists), and certainly every word she uttered, has been analyzed from every angle imaginable in the country’s vibrant, free press.

The prevailing analysis here is overwhelmingly positive; the bilateral relationship seems to have not only thawed but warmed to a positively toasty degree. Initial outcomes of the visit include quick gains for both Indonesia and the U.S.: university scholarships in science and technology for the Indonesians, and the possible resumption of the Peace Corps program – consistently rejected by the government of Indonesia since the 1960s – for the Americans.

Perhaps, more importantly for long-term relations between the two countries, are the overall tone and content of Clinton’s remarks on Indonesia – both in her first foreign policy speech, delivered in New York on February 13, and in her speech to Indonesian leaders on February 19. In both cases, what she did not say was almost more remarkable than what she did say. Secretary Clinton did not emphasize terrorism, except to list it as one in a series of issues like regional security, economic stability, and climate change, which are of concern to both countries.

Instead, Secretary Clinton emphasized the very same priorities that Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono did during his visit to the U.S. last month – energy, food security, education, and the economic crisis. She underscored the commonalities between the two countries, citing shared interests such as protecting the environment, democracy, health and education, trade and investment, and regional security. Secretary Clinton noted that to combat climate change, both countries – among the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases – would need to be engaged in finding constructive solutions. Secretary Clinton said specifically in her remarks, “Building a comprehensive partnership with Indonesia is a critical step. On behalf of the United States there is a commitment to smart partnership, to listening as well as talking with those around the world, to supporting a country that has demonstrated so clearly that Islam, democracy, and modernity not only can co-exist, but can thrive together.”

While predominantly positive, the response to Clinton’s message is uneven. Many Indonesians welcome the effort to broaden the bilateral relationship to include strategic issues beyond just Islam or counter-terrorism, while also appreciating the invitation to play a stronger leadership role in the Muslim world. At the same time, some Muslim leaders were disappointed that Clinton did not have more focused meetings and dialogues with key Muslim leaders. This reflects the ambivalence and complexity that has characterized the bilateral relationship in recent years. On the one hand, Indonesia wants a stronger and closer relationship with the U.S., and welcomes U.S. presence in the region as a counterweight to China; on the other hand, the previous administration’s “war on terror” policy distanced Indonesia. Now, with the clear shift in the Obama administration’s tone and posture on Islam, some leaders in Indonesia welcome the opportunity to play a leadership role in facilitating better relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world; other leaders want the bilateral relationship to be predicated on other issues – energy, education, etc – as they feel that Indonesia cannot and should not try to influence the Muslim world.

It seems clear that the U.S. sees Indonesia as a crucial part of its effort to redefine its relationship with the Muslim world – whether or not Indonesia will play along remains to be seen. Given the history of the bilateral relationship, odds are good that it will, and that Indonesia is poised for a leadership role both in Southeast Asia and in the Muslim world.

Robin Bush is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at rbush@tafindo.org.

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