Obama’s visit to Indonesia: What is at stake?

Posted: November 6, 2010 in English Version

In a clichéd world of rising, stagnating and declining powers, there is one country whose rise has not received sufficient recognition, and another whose decline has been much exaggerated.

The first is Indonesia and the second is the United States. It is this conjuncture in time in the destinies of the two nations that makes US President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Indonesia so important for both countries and ASEAN.

Indonesia is rising. Once again, it is enhancing its role in Southeast Asia. Following the turbulent years, starting from the precipitated downfall of the Soeharto regime and the catastrophic Asian Economic Crisis of 1997-1998, Indonesia is very much in the news again — for the right reasons.

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd’s proposal for an Asia-Pacific community took into account Indonesia’s position in the region by making it a member of the grouping. Those opposed to the Australian proposal countered it with the argument that it would weaken ASEAN.

Thus, they recognized ASEAN’s centrality in the Asian economic, political and security architecture — in turn acknowledging Indonesia’s leading role in making ASEAN a credible organization.

Indonesia is also a member of the Group of 20 nations whose economic well-being affects the economy of the world at large. The country’s success in navigating the 2008 global economic crisis shows how well it has recovered from the Asian crisis, which all but wiped out the gains that it had made in the previous 30 years.

Another factor, as a democratic Muslim-majority, but not Islamic state, Indonesia is a key bridge for anyone to the Muslim world. Indonesia may not be the center of Islamic civilization, but it plays a significant and influential role in Asia.

The resilience of the Pancasila state in spite of the transnational efforts of terrorists and the provocations of extremists says a lot about the founding spirit of Indonesian Independence. It is real.

What is truly remarkable is that the antiterrorist efforts are taking place in the absence of the draconian laws that once underpinned the Soeharto regime.

Democracy in Indonesia has not weakened the national framework. Instead, it has strengthened that framework by allowing popular forces to enter the political mainstream.

The consolidation and now maturing of democracy have stabilized Indonesia in a way that authoritarianism and despotism hoped but were unable to achieve. Democracy is the primary source of Indonesia’s stability today.

Indonesia is rising because democracy and the economy are working together to create new paradigms of success. The results are seen in its sharper international profile and in the clearer profile of the organization that could not have existed without it: ASEAN.

What Indonesia requires at this juncture is recognition of its rise. And it is the United States that, more than any other nation, can give the recognition that matters.

Why is the US important: gloating references to the decline of American power and the coming demise of American influence were the daily staple of the Asian intelligentsia and media until recently.

Ancient Asia — read China and India — was said to be rising again; parvenu America, not even two-and-a-half centuries old, was declared to be in a state of permanent decline after a period of imperial overstretch.

Then came the South China Sea dispute and the Asian mood soured considerably. ASEAN nations turned to Washington for help in facing what they saw as an increasingly assertive and intransigent Beijing. Ancient Asia receded against the lashing waves of the South China Sea and a modernizing Chinese navy.

What the ships, planes and troops of Uncle Sam might do in a very modern eventuality loomed large on the Asian horizon.

America’s economy is marked by innovativeness, resilience and relative freedom. American politics, for all its elitism, has not lost the smell of the earth, that is of earthy grassroots and face-to-face democracy.

American foreign policy, although marked by its high-handedness as the sole superpower, helps to sustain what order there is in global politics by providing many of the essential public goods of international life.

The horrors of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, American soft power exercises an indelible influence on the international imagination because it emerges from a culture of open-ended
self-criticism.

Some of the most trenchant critics of American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan were and are Americans themselves. This point is not lost on foreigners.

In Indonesia’s maturing democracy, its liberalizing economy and its contribution to the regional order in Asia, America will find a nation whose rise is worth acknowledging and welcoming.

That is because Indonesia’s rise makes Asia a safer place — and helps to make the world, in turn, safer for America. Indonesia’s help in facilitating America’s entry to the East Asian Summit process could be a small indication of what is to come.

I believe that the Obama visit will be remembered and that it will be remembered in this historical context.

Of course, bilateral issues matter. The Comprehensive Partnership Agreement between the two countries provides a durable framework for bilateral relations.

However, the larger international point made by the visit is that the two countries are traveling forward on the same side of history.

Since it is impossible to mention America nowadays without mentioning China — a sign of the latter’s unquestionable rise — let me say that it is important not to let the South China Sea issue subsume America’s ties with ASEAN countries.

Yes, American power is important in assuring the small countries of ASEAN that their interests can be protected in an era of China’s rise. However, America’s ties with ASEAN in general, and Indonesia in particular, are too broad to be overshadowed by a single issue.

Likewise, it is important for ASEAN not to lead Beijing to believe that it is ganging up with the United States to contain China.

It is my belief that Indonesia, which has always prized itself on the autonomy with which it has conducted its international dealings, will be balanced in reaching out to America while retaining its prized relationship with Beijing.

In a word, President Obama’s visit to a country where he spent a part of his childhood might set the tone for the two countries as they move into an increasingly mature phase of their relationship.

This is poetic justice at its international best.

The writer is CEO of Bakrie Telecom and vice chairman of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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