Indonesia is the sort of friend America needs

Tom Plate says Jakarta could be Washington's special ally in Asia and the Muslim world

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 3:16am

Within days, US President Barack Obama is set to visit Southeast Asia and this is a very good thing. The region is becoming more significant by the month.

I am slightly sad he will grace only three countries: Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. Taken together, the region's population comes in at about 600 million, half of which is Muslim.

America especially needs extra focus on Indonesia, where 90 per cent of its 248 million citizens are Muslims, making it the country with the largest Islamic population anywhere.

The US needs to keep repeating that last fact. Not too long ago, Jakarta was a main crossroads in America's anti-communist crusade in Asia but when the Iron Curtain fell, so, generally, did Washington's interest.

The country has suffered shock after shock of bloody terrorist attacks and recovered; it practically tore itself apart economically (helped along by bad Western advice) during the Asian financial crisis - and recovered.

Despite suffering a series of ineffectual leaders, it is evolving away from authoritarianism and practises a rough-functioning democracy that offers real promise. Today, Indonesia is on its feet, with a forward-moving economy, a president who is ensconced in his second term, and a future that looks markedly more hopeful.

It is also a constitutional secular democracy, even with its deep Muslim culture. This needs to be noted in Washington more often. After all, economics aside, the US faces two huge global issues. One is how to get its relationship with China into proper balance. That won't be easy, but it is doable. The other big challenge is harder: how to get a proper handle on its roiling relationship with the Islamic world. Is that doable?

So far, too many sectors of the Islamic world have huge issues with America. And so, if second-term Barack Hussein Obama - the son of a Muslim - were to make any foreign-policy goal his priority (outside global economics), it should be to advance US ties, co-operation and the level of trust with the Muslim world.

The US cannot do this alone. It needs a strong friend, and Indonesia could be that special ally. Wary of China, though not antagonistic, and conversant with Islam, though anything but "radical", Indonesia is a huge untapped geopolitical and diplomatic resource. Jakarta could contribute much to global peace and stability.

The world's fourth-most-populous nation can help the third-most-populous in ways not so far tried. But the US must, for once, listen with humility and appreciation. In this way, the well-intentioned "pivot" to Asia won't turn into yet another ungainly foreign-policy divot.

American journalist Tom Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University