Obama expectations revised in Indonesia By Sara Schonhardt
JAKARTA - United States President Barack Obama will make a much-anticipated
official visit to Indonesia in March, raising speculation of a possible upgrade
in bilateral relations. Shortly after the White House announcement, the visit
made headlines in the English language press and Twitter messages circulated
widely hailing the return of the "Menteng kid", a reference to the Jakarta
neighborhood where he lived in his early childhood.
Indonesia's presidential spokesman, Dino Patti Djalal, said Obama's plans to
spend several days in the country will make his visit the longest yet by a US
president. "I must emphasize that there's a sentimental aspect there," Dino
The highly anticipated visit represents more than a chance for
Obama to wax nostalgic. Many analysts have speculated that Obama's
administration could give greater strategic emphasis to the bilateral
relationship in a bid to counterbalance China's rising influence in mainland
Southeast Asia, including substantial sway over Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
Top US officials are hinting as much. "This trip is an important part of the
president's continued effort to broaden and strengthen the partnerships that
are necessary to advance our security and prosperity," White House Press
Secretary Robert Gibbs said during a press briefing on Monday to announce
Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country and its third-largest
democracy. After Obama met his Indonesian counterpart, Susilo Bambang
Yudhoyono, in Singapore last November, the US president said he was
"extraordinarily impressed" with the progress of Indonesian democracy. That
compares with perceived back-sliding in the Philippines and Thailand, the US's
other main strategic allies in the region.
Yudhoyono, who was overwhelmingly re-elected to a second five-year term last
year, has received much of the credit for the democratic progress. However,
high-profile corruption scandals, a controversial bank bailout and public
discontent that manifested in citywide protests in January have tainted the
first few months of Yudhoyono's second term.
With domestic politics in disarray, some analysts believe Obama's visit may not
be a boost for the embattled Yudhoyono administration.
"The Obama card is something the government needs," said Evan Laksmana, a
researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to
the potential a meeting could have for increasing US aid and investment. "But
something big should come out of the meeting. There should be some concrete
The euphoria felt here after Obama's 2009 election has wound down among
Indonesians, who had high hopes that his connection to their country would have
already raised significantly the country's profile in Washington. Indonesia is
the US's 29th largest trading partner, and US companies have invested heavily
in local petroleum and mining industries.
The two countries have also recently enhanced security ties. For instance, the
US was instrumental in the creation of, and has provided crucial training to,
Indonesia's elite Detachment 88 unit, which has led several high-profile
Yet for some Indonesians, the pre-eminence given to Obama and by association
the US has already reached a tipping point. After a small bronze statue of a
10-year-old Obama was recently unveiled in Menteng Park, a group of citizens
started a Facebook page calling for its removal. The site has drawn more than
10,000 members and the grouping has since filed a lawsuit with the city to have
the statue taken down.
Ron Mullers, chairman of the Friends of Obama Foundation, which sponsored the
statue, has said it was meant only to represent a boy who lived in the
neighborhood. The eight Indonesians who started the Facebook group say their
own heroes should be represented rather than foreigners, particularly
foreigners who to date have done little for Indonesia .
Some policy analysts say Obama lost an opportunity by skipping his previously
planned visit in November. But it is the lack of what Laksmana calls "real
deliverables" that has raised hackles. "People are asking, 'What has he done
for us? What has he done to improve the welfare of people in the Muslim
Recalibrating the US's approach to the Muslim world has been a pivotal part of
Obama's foreign policy, which devotes more attention than his predecessor's to
cultural diplomacy. Part of that effort was on display last week in Jakarta,
where a San Francisco-based dance troupe performed as part of a cultural
The State Department, which has partnered with the Brooklyn Academy of Music to
sponsor the initiative, says it demonstrates America's respect and appreciation
for other cultures and traditions. Yet even while speaking to the importance of
cross-cultural exchanges, Anne Grimes, the cultural attache for the US Embassy
in Jakarta, highlighted the importance of political and military relations.
When Obama meets Yudhoyono in March, the two are expected to formally launch
the US-Indonesian Comprehensive Partnership, a pact that will cover educational
exchanges, trade and investment cooperation, and security and non-security
issues such as climate change.
The 2010 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill will increase funding
for education and cultural exchanges by $97 million year on year. Yet Laksmana
said pushing what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls "smart power" will
make little difference as long as thorny issues, such as restoring aid to
Indonesia's Special Forces, go unresolved. The US suspended funding to the
Special Forces in 1992 after it was linked to human-rights abuses in East
Timor, and the issue has been a sticking point between the two allies since.
Local critics of the so-called "smart power" approach say US culture erodes
Indonesian morals. According to a 2006 study by the Indonesian Survey Institute
(LSI), six out of every 10 Indonesian Muslims believed Western culture had a
negative influence on local culture.
Despite those criticisms, a visit by the US president is seen as necessary to
reassure one of the few countries in the region that is anxious over China's
growing regional dominance. Laksmana said an enhanced strategic partnership
with the US could provide a good counterbalance to China, which has long
simmering maritime disputes with Indonesia .
Analysts say the success of Obama's trip will depend on the verdict of an
ongoing investigation into the Bank Century bailout. Indonesia's vice president
and finance minister are both accused of pilfering funds from the state rescue
and Yudhoyono's name also has been raised. All have denied the charges as
If the court finds high-level graft occurred, Laksmana said, Obama's visit
could be used by the opposition as an opportunity to launch even stronger
attacks against Yudhoyono, who some have accused of being an American puppet
and of driving a neo-liberal agenda that prioritizes free trade over the
protection of Indonesian businesses.
In some ways, Yudhoyono and Obama find themselves in similar political
positions. Both have seen their popularity drop since taking office, and many
fault them for failing to meet their campaign promises. Against that backdrop,
many wonder whether Obama's belated attention to Indonesia will do Yudhoyono
more political harm than good.
Sara Schonhardt is a freelance writer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She
has lived and worked in Southeast Asia for six years and has a master's degree
in international affairs from Columbia University.