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As Host, Indonesia Anticipates Obama’s First East Asia Summit

November 16, 2011

President Barack Obama will be the first U.S. president ever to attend an East Asia Summit (EAS), to be chaired by Indonesia in Bali on November 19. This summit comes at the end of a major Asia-Pacific tour for President Obama, beginning with APEC in Honolulu, a visit to Australia, and continuing on with the 19th ASEAN Summit and EAS in Bali – in what is a clear effort to shore up American presence in the region. This Obama tour, and particularly the EAS component, is strategically significant for both Indonesia and the United States. Indonesia has actively supported the addition of Russia and the United States to the EAS. Their induction last year, followed by Obama’s presence at the EAS this year, indicates not only the increasing importance of East Asia globally, but also serves to strengthen the political clout of the EAS as a regional forum.

Diplomatically, Indonesia is playing a bit of a balancing game – seeking to broaden the perimeters of ASEAN influence to include global players like the United States and Russia, while at the same time trying to keep ASEAN (especially during this year when Indonesia is chair) firmly in the driver’s seat. Indonesia’s motivation to broaden the stakeholders in the region is not simply about giving regional architectures more heft, but is also driven by the imperative to balance China’s dominance in the region.

The China factor appears to be prominent among U.S. policymakers’ thinking as well. The Obama administration has been visibly playing catch-up in seeking to establish a more active U.S. presence in East Asia, and particularly in Southeast Asia. Obama signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2009 which paved the way for the United States to join the EAS; his administration has held multiple high-level bilateral meetings with ASEAN leaders over the past three years, and of course, Obama himself visited Indonesia in November of last year. The Indonesia-U.S. bilateral relationship has deepened significantly during the Obama administration, with a Strategic Partnership established prior to the presidential visit, and a number of cooperation agreements emanating after the visit. Complementing bilateral initiatives such as these with heightened multi-lateral engagement appears to be a hallmark of the Obama administration, at least in Southeast Asia.

For Indonesia, these developments reinforce its efforts to play a leadership role in the region and establish a stronger global presence. Its membership in the G-20 and chairmanship of ASEAN have afforded Indonesia a platform from which to gain visibility and clout, and push forward its agenda on issues such as maritime security, the South China sea, connectivity, and trade.

Having Obama attend the EAS during the year of Indonesia’s chairmanship is a symbolic coup significant for both sides. For the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently posited this as “America’s Pacific Century” – Southeast Asia is an increasingly important part of Asia to the United States for trade and geopolitical reasons. For Southeast Asia, and Indonesia in particular, U.S. involvement as a counterbalance to China and a global ally is also important.

Robin Bush is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at rbush@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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