Analysis: Obama’s Jakarta trip a chance to repair frayed ties

By David Fox

JAKARTA (BestGrowthStock) – President Barack Obama visits his childhood home of Jakarta this week a weakened leader who has lost much of the goodwill that followed his election, but he may get a boost from an unlikely source: China.

Obama arrives in Indonesia, fresh from a mauling at mid-term polls that has diminished his stature at home and abroad, and just as strategic rival China is trying to play an increasingly assertive role in the region.

But China may have been overplaying its hand — and that gives Obama an opportunity.

Beijing’s hawkish behavior over maritime disputes involving several Asian nations has concerned Indonesia and other countries in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and they are looking to Washington to act as a balancing force that helps them protect their interests and steer an independent course.

“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,” wrote Anindya Bakrie, a businessman and son of leading Indonesian political powerbroker Aburizal Bakrie, in the Jakarta Post newspaper.

“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.”

So while Washington may have squandered some of its goodwill, it still may be able to bolster its regional influence.

“The United States’ lack of interest in Southeast Asia during much of the 2000s, though that is changing, opened the door for China,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“But China has done itself some damage in the region, and also in Indonesia, by taking a more aggressive public posture over the past year on a lot of issues, like the South China Sea.”

Most Indonesians rejoiced when Obama was elected president two years ago — the world’s largest Muslim country saw him as a leader who not only could repair ties with the Islamic world but who also had a special understanding of a country he lived in as a boy. But the honeymoon is definitely over.

“Obama is weakened at home, and is weakened in the world now,” said Wimar Witoelar, a veteran political commentator and former Indonesian presidential spokesman.

“Excitement here has long gone over his visit. But one must not misunderstand — support is still here.”

Obama has twice canceled previous planned visits. Even his latest trip — he is scheduled to arrive on Tuesday for a 24-hour visit — is in some doubt because of concerns over volcanic ash from repeated eruptions of Indonesia’s Mount Merapi.

INDONESIA’S IMPORTANCE ON THE RISE

Indonesia’s importance as an ally of the United States is rising. A decade ago, Washington’s primary interest was securing Jakarta’s cooperation in crushing Muslim militant groups in the region loyal to al Qaeda. That effort has been a success — while the militant threat still exists, it is greatly diminished.

But now Indonesia’s growing economic and geopolitical clout make it the key player in Southeast Asia.

Regarded as the region’s basket case until recently, Indonesia is now seen as joining the “BRIC” bloc of emerging economic powerhouses Brazil, Russia, India and China, and hopes to attain an investment grade sovereign rating before long.

With authoritarianism on the rise in Thailand, Indonesia also stands out as the torchbearer for democracy in Southeast Asia.

“We see in Indonesia the intersection of a lot of key American interests and we see this as a partnership that is very important to the future of American interests in Asia and the world,” said U.S. deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes.

Obama will announce increased aid for education and seek to deepen relationships on economic and security issues.

Obama and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono — who like his U.S. counterpart faces waning popularity after an initial tide of enthusiasm — are expected to sign the “Comprehensive Partnership” pact they agreed a year ago.

“The partnership includes major initiatives in trade and investment, maritime security, counterterrorism, higher education, and climate change cooperation, and effectively enhances ties with Indonesia to a substantively new level,” said Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Obama’s visit will resonate far beyond Indonesia.

Other Southeast Asian nations worried about China will be watching to see if the United States provides the support they want as a bulwark against Beijing.

And a speech he is scheduled to give at Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque is a chance to repair ties with the Muslim world, damaged by the failure to shut Guantanamo Bay and the war in Afghanistan.

In 2009 in a major speech in Cairo he called for a “new beginning” in relations with Islam. Indonesia and the wider Muslim world are still waiting to see that new beginning, but Obama’s visit to Jakarta gives him another chance to restore their faith.

(Additional reporting by Sunanda Creagh and Chris White in Jakarta, and Alister Bull traveling with Obama; Writing by Andrew Marshall; Editing by Miral Fahmy)

Analysis: Obama’s Jakarta trip a chance to repair frayed ties