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Obama’s Visit to Indonesia, More than Just a Homecoming

November 10, 2010

Heavy rains greeted President Obama Tuesday afternoon as he arrived in Jakarta for his long-awaited, twice postponed “homecoming.” But the rain couldn’t dampen the excitement of Jakarta residents at the arrival of this highly popular U.S. president. Indonesians have a very personal sense of affection and pride for President Obama –largely due to his childhood history here. This closeness was reflected in the State Dinner that Indonesian President Yudhoyono held for President Obama Tuesday night in Jakarta, where he was served his boyhood favorite meals – nasi goreng and baso – and where President Yudhoyono bestowed on Obama’s mother, posthumously, the Bintang Jasa Utama award – the highest honor given to a civilian. The similarity between the two countries was the theme of both presidents’ remarks at the dinner, where President Yudhoyono twice mentioned the importance of the values of pluralism, tolerance, freedom, and equality shared between the two countries.

President Obama has had to share headlines with the ongoing volcanic eruptions of Mt. Merapi in Central Java which have tragically claimed over a hundred lives and caused flight delays as far away as Jakarta, as well as assistance to victims of  last week’s devastating tsunami in the Mentawai islands being delayed by stormy weather. And, Indonesians are notably more sanguine about the president’s visit this time – having experienced last minute cancellations twice before this year. Nevertheless, on Tuesday when it became clear that this time, President Obama was going to actually touch down in Indonesia for the first time in his presidency, Indonesians began to allow themselves some excitement.

This visit means more to Indonesia, however, than just a “return-to-childhood-home” story. In many ways President Obama’s visit signifies recognition that Indonesia has become a serious and important player on the international stage, and that Indonesia’s role, especially in the Southeast Asia region, is strategically meaningful to the U.S.

The visit also highlights that Indonesia is not just a gateway to the Muslim world for the U.S., but has become a mature, strategic partner on many fronts. This is clearly evident in the Comprehensive Partnership, a set of agreements that includes initiatives on higher education, trade, security, climate change, and counter-terrorism, launched Tuesday by both presidents. The significance of the Comprehensive Partnership is that it revolves around issues that President Yudhoyono put forward as Indonesia’s key priorities during his visit to Washington over 18 months ago. The Partnership is a concrete, tangible indicator that the U.S.-Indonesia relationship is one of peers in which both sides set the agenda, rather than a relationship dominated by a war-on-terror agenda in which Indonesia emblemizes “Moderate Islam.” This more equal partnership status is probably at least, if not more, valuable to Indonesians than the $165 million education package and $130 million climate change package announced in recent months – only two of several assistance programs associated with the Comprehensive Partnership. Other elements of the Partnership include military-to-military training opportunities and science and technology-related exchange programs. The Comprehensive Partnership is, in short, high on concrete points of collaboration, and also high on the symbolic import of a more equal relationship.

As such, the U.S. has a lot to gain out of this visit as well. Indonesia is the largest and most strategically important country in ASEAN, which it will chair next year. As the U.S. charts a course of increasing focus on Asia, and with China looming ever-large in the geopolitical framework, Indonesia has become an important ally for the U.S. in the region. Trade and regional security are two key areas in which the U.S. seeks to be influential through ASEAN, the East Asia Summit, and other regional architectures – and Indonesia is vital to that endeavor. As the third largest democracy in the world, home to the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia shares many interests, values, and challenges with the U.S. and has much to offer the relationship.

These themes – shared values, equal partnership, and the strategic importance of Indonesia to the U.S. – were evident in the public address delivered by President Obama Wednesday morning in Jakarta, to a huge, and very friendly crowd at the University of Indonesia campus. However important, strategic interests took a back seat in the speech, and in the post-speech commentary by Indonesians, to President Obama’s highly personalized approach. Announcing at the beginning of the speech that “Indonesia adalah bagian dari saya” (Indonesia is a part of who I am), and sprinkling the speech with his childhood memories of growing up in Jakarta, Obama reached out to Indonesians on a very personal level. Telling the crowd that he learned about tolerance and diversity in Indonesia, and underscoring the similarities in the challenges faced by the two large democracies with highly diverse ethnic and religious populations, President Obama deftly and in a matter of minutes, narrowed a gap of misperception and cultural distance. Indonesians responded enthusiastically to his warmth and humanity – this already highly popular U.S. president will leave Indonesia with many more fans, and a foundation of partnership that bodes well for effective collaboration between the second and third largest democracies in the world.

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

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