So why is Indonesia not on Obama's first tour of East Asia?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 October, 2009, 12:00am

A few months ago, it was seen as a no-brainer: a triumphant return to his childhood home in Indonesia by US President Barack Obama to wrap up his first visit to East Asia.

The long-anticipated Indonesian mission represented a unique opportunity, given Obama's years attending primary school in the Jakarta suburb of Menteng under the watch of his Indonesian stepfather.

As Southeast Asia's largest nation and the world's largest secular Muslim state, Indonesia plays into the Obama administration's script on a number of levels - the need to reach out to moderate Islam, support an emerging democracy and quietly reassert ties with a Southeast Asia that feels ignored by the US at a time of a growing Chinese presence.

Yet when White House officials recently unveiled his East Asian itinerary ahead of his appearance at the Apec forum in Singapore next month, Indonesia was conspicuous by its omission.

Instead, there is a more predictable route of all the 'must dos' - the traditional allies Japan and South Korea, as well as China. Obama will meet his Indonesian counterpart Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - who in July became the country's first president to win a second term in a democratic election - on the fringes of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meeting in Singapore. He will also host a summit with all Southeast Asian leaders.

Not surprisingly, Indonesians are scratching their heads. If Obama gets all the way to neighbouring Singapore, why can't he get to Jakarta?

Yudhoyono, after all, had played up the importance of the US relationship ahead of the election. He followed his first meeting with Obama at the Group of 20 summit in London with an announcement that the US president would visit this year.

Now White House officials are talking about a possible trip next June, repeatedly stressing that an Indonesian visit had been merely postponed rather than cancelled.

Jusuf Wanandi, the elder statesman of Indonesia's foreign policy scholars, captured the mood. 'I was really very surprised,' said Wanandi, a senior fellow at Indonesia's Centre for Strategic and International Studies. 'It was not just that everyone here was expecting him to come, but preparations were already under way. And Singapore is so close, it makes no sense.

'Given Washington's interests in supporting Indonesia's democracy and seeing Indonesia live up to its potential and play a leading role in the region, not coming here is even harder to explain.'

The surprise decision has also sparked speculation among some security analysts that the deadly bombing of the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels in July had raised fresh fears for the safety of the Obama delegation. The bombings were the first in four years - and a blunt reminder that the war in the shadows against al-Qaeda-affiliated Indonesian terrorists was far from over.

'On so many levels, Obama and a successful Indonesia is a clear threat to the goals of Islamic terrorism,' a private-sector security analyst said. 'And given the question marks about basic security in Jakarta, securing a presidential visit at this moment is a huge task.'

Obama administration officials and US-based scholars, however, are playing down security fears. George W. Bush, a far less popular figure in Indonesia, still managed to stage a flying visit as president in 2006 - a time of considerably greater tension.

Then there are the pressures facing the young Obama presidency as it grapples with domestic challenges, including health care reforms.

'The reality is that Obama is facing huge problems,' said Lex Rieffel, an Indonesia specialist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. 'He simply can't do everything at the same time. As important as Indonesia may be to the administration's various goals, it is still well down a list of priorities.

'He's got to go to Japan, China and South Korea - and he's got to deal with domestic challenges as well.'

Rieffel said he believed the Obama team had made a conscious decision that they wanted to get Indonesia 'right' - the forging of a broad new relationship that meant a long trip rather than something simply tacked on to the end of a swing through the region.

That would also mean creating lots of 'deliverables' to give the visit substance as well as playing up family links, taking along his part-Indonesian half-sister and his two daughters to his childhood home and school.

'Indonesia can be seen as the biggest country that Americans don't know anything about ... I think President Obama ... believes it is time to change that,' Rieffel said.

Ralph Cossa, president of the Centre of Strategic and International Studies' Pacific Forum, said he believed Obama's domestic woes might have been a factor. 'I'm not sure the visuals would have been right ... to have the president being seen to be palling around his old school in Indonesia while he's facing all these challenges at home.

'I think he'll want to wait until things are more settled to give the trip the best kind of impact.'

Those domestic pressures were certainly apparent when White House officials announced the East Asia trip last week. The first question from the White House press pack about the president's first trip to Asia: 'When does he get back?'