Barack Obama arrived in Jakarta on Tuesday for a two-day visit to his childhood home of four years to officiate the "comprehensive partnership" between the US and Indonesia at a meeting with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Indonesians were unsure whether or not Obama would touch down in the country after the US President twice cancelled trips to Asia — including a visit to Australia — because of domestic crises. This time around, Australia was again dropped off the itinerary, but the US built key ties with our northwestern neighbour ahead of the G20.
"As one of the world’s largest democracies, the largest economy in Southeast Asia, a G20 member, the chair of ASEAN in 2011 … and as a society of extraordinary diversity, Indonesia is where many of the challenges and the opportunities of the 21st century come together," Obama stated at the join press conference with Yudhoyono at the Presidential Palace on Tuesday.
"Whether we’re talking about APEC or the East Asia Summit [EAS] or for that matter the G20, Indonesia’s … leadership is going to be absolutely critical [in Asia]," he said, adding he was pleased to announce that Indonesia would be hosting next year’s annual OPEC meeting.
Obama’s very presence and the high praise he lavished on Indonesia was understood by local observers to be part of the President’s efforts to strengthen the place of the US in the fastest growing region in the world — a region in which the forces of China and India loom large.
"Obama, aware of the growing importance of East Asia, has moved quickly to reaffirm the US’ role in the region," wrote the executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Rizal Sukma, in the Jakarta Post.
The head of the international politics department at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (ISS), Adriana Elisabeth, said that China would politically and economically move faster than what some countries in the region might think. "The US feels this is happening now, which is why it is investing so much in the region," she told New Matilda.
For its part, Indonesia is approaching its partnership with the US from a more collegial level, aiming to create balanced power in the region. Yudhoyono said he wanted to strengthen the economy, politics and security in the region by boosting cooperation between nations such as through summits including EAS and APEC, "thereby securing distinguished communities in East Asia".
"We believe that China as prosperous and secure is positive, and we are not interested in containing its progress," he continued. "We do want to make sure that everybody is operating within the international framework and laws, and [that everyone]recognises their responsibilities — this is true for Indonesia and China as well as the US."
The partnership announced by the two leaders involved three "pillars", of which Rizal, writing in the Jakarta Post, believes will help the US tackle its responsibilities on the global stage. "A partnership with Indonesia would enhance the efforts to find both a regional and global solution to those problems," he said.
The first linchpin covers trade and investment. The second focuses on soft power issues such as climate change, educational opportunities and human rights; and the third concerns political and security cooperation.
On trade and investment, Obama stated he wanted to increase prosperity in both countries — and put substantial emphasis on boosting US exports to Indonesia. When Yudhonoyo noted that the US currently sat as the third-largest exporter to Indonesia, Obama retorted, "We don’t like being third, we want to be number one."
Both countries also committed to undertaking joint research in energy and biodiversity, expanding educational partnerships between scientists, engineers and doctors, and stimulating prosperity through meetings such as the G20, which Obama praised for stabilising the world economy.
The soft-power issue pillar reaffirmed their commitment to battle climate change. "Indonesia will be on the frontline when it comes to the potential impacts of climate change so we are glad to work with President Yudhoyono on this issue," Obama said. As far as corruption and human rights are concerned, both leaders promised the two countries would undertake new efforts to advocate human rights and tackle corruption by engaging civil society groups.
This statement was delivered the same day investigative journalist Allan Nairn revealed that secret documents had leaked from inside Kopassus, Indonesia’s US-backed security force accused of committing gross human rights abuses in the country. Nairn said that the documents showed Kopassus engaged in "murder [and]abduction" and that it was involved in religious violence involving churches in West Papua, defining "civilian dissidents as the "enemy".
This latest revelation about the human rights violations which have occurred under the auspices of organisations backed by the US draws into question the status of Yudhoyono’s commitment to human rights. Indeed, Indonesia’s poor human rights record is why experts believe that Indonesia is incapable of engaging in anything beyond a comprehensive partnership.
"For Indonesia to move from a comprehensive to strategic partnership, its human rights record must improve," said Adriana Elisabeth from the ISS. "It cannot assume a strategic partnership with any country if it does not practice democracy, which it fails in through its high level of corruption practice." Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index handed Indonesia a low score of 2.8 out of 10 — and ranked it 110 of 178 countries.
"Finally, Indonesia’s poverty level is unacceptable with 32 million [of 230 million]people living below the poverty line," said Elisabeth. "These three factors prevent the US from assuming a strategic partnership with our country."
But consolidating strategic measures between Indonesia, the US and other Asian countries are imperative, according to another Indonesian Institute of Sciences security expert, Reifqi Muna, in regards to US-Indonesia security and political cooperation in combating terrorism. He told New Matilda that it was of acute importance that the US cooperate with Indonesia as part of ASEAN — a collective nation — as opposed to a regional architecture composed of only one power at the head. "Do not push [Indonesia] to choose between the US and China. If we have to choose, there will be grave security consequences," he warned.
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