Diplomatic Pouch / September 30, 2010
By Larry Luxner
President Obama, who lived in Jakarta as a boy, promised he’ll visit Indonesia in November after having postponed the trip twice — first because of debate over health-care reform and then because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Nearly all Indonesians are eagerly looking forward to Obama’s visit, though few more than Dino Patti Djalal, the country’s new ambassador in Washington, and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.
On Sep. 17, Natalegawa addressed hundreds of distinguished guests gathered at Washington’s Capital Hilton Hotel. His 55-minute speech was part of the ongoing Southeast Asia-focused Banyan Tree Leadership Forum sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“We recognize the importance of building dialogue on a broad range of issues. I have come to Washington in pursuit of such dialogue,” said Natalegawa, warmly congratulating Ambassador Djalal, who had presented his credentials to Obama only the day before. “The more we know of one another, the smoother and more fruitful will be our cooperation, and the robust our friendship.”
It’s hard to overestimate the global importance of Indonesia, which has 235 million citizens and is home to more Muslims than any other country on Earth. In addition, Indonesia holds the incoming presidency of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and was recently named a member of the G-20 economic bloc.
On Sep. 24, Obama met eight of the 10 ASEAN heads of state at the second U.S.-ASEAN Summit, held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono did not attend, instead sending Vice President Boediono to the summit.
Natalegawa attributed Yudhoyono’s absence to a schedule conflict rather than any hurt feelings over Obama’s now twice-delayed trip to Indonesia.
“Nothing is broken that needs fixing, but we can do with more nurturing,” he said. “Our two countries have a long friendship that dates back to when — in the wake of World War II — the U.S. supported Indonesia’s struggle for independence. Today, we are the second and third-largest democracies in the world, which means we are totally committed to the same ideals, including those enshrined in the UN charter.”
Natalegawa addressed the CSIS forum only a few hours before he was due to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Together, the two foreign-policy leaders inaugurated the Joint U.S.-Indonesian Commission, which features six working groups focusing on areas like education, democracy, climate change and the environment.
Describing the current state of relations between Jakarta and Washington as a “comprehensive partnership based on key principles of mutual respect and common interest,” Natalegawa said things have certainly come a long way since 1998, when Indonesia was in the midst of the devastating Asian financial crisis.
“If I had stood before you 12 years ago, I would not be talking about a comprehensive partnership with the United States. At that time, authoritarian Indonesia had a gaping deficit, a decline of 13.5 percent in our GDP and social turmoil,” he said.
“But today, we have a new Indonesia. We enjoy rights and liberties, and resilience as a nation, tested by man-made as well as natural disasters. We are living proof that democracy, Islam and modernization can flourish together.”
Natalegawa reminded his audience that Indonesia’s GDP grew 6 percent in 2008 and 4 percent in 2009, with growth projected at 5.5 percent this year and 6.4 percent in 2011.
“We enjoy the third-highest growth rate among G-20 nations after China and India. Our exports were valued at $100 billion last year, and foreign reserves reached $78 billion, while our debt-to-GDP ratio dropped to 27.8 percent. Our poverty rate continues to decline and food security continues to strengthen. These are the dividends of our democratic transformation.”
Referring to recent tensions in the South China Sea, Natalegawa said “Indonesia believes the Asia-Pacific region need not slip into a Cold War-type environment of mutual suspicion and hostility.”
Recently, Clinton — while on a visit to Vietnam — challenged China’s self-declared “indisputable sovereignty” over the 1.3 million-square-mile sea by reiterating U.S. goals for maritime dispute resolution. That’s why the United States and other countries including Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, South Korea and Russia are working to create a new regional security architecture; in addition, the United States and Russia have both been invited to join the East Asia Summit during its planned October meeting in Hanoi.
Natalegawa added that Indonesia “looks forward to working closely with the United States beyond the Asia-Pacific region, wherever there is a potential for conflict — whether it’s the Arab-Israeli conflict or tensions on the Korean peninsula. We would also like to cooperate in a reform of the UN that would better reflect the realities of the contemporary world. We will also strive to reform international financial institutions and give the developing world a bigger say in global decision-making.”
To that end, Indonesia hopes Obama will soon announce his candidate as the first U.S. ambassador to ASEAN to be resident in Jakarta. A candidate’s name is reportedly pending review and due diligence, according to the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council. “
“We are trying to make Jakarta the diplomatic capital for our region. The ASEAN Secretariat is located there, along with the paraphernalia that comes with the Secretariat,” said Natalegawa. “Jakarta should be a one-stop for our friends to do business in the region.”
During a brief question-and-answer session following his speech, someone asked Natalegawa if the United States was becoming more Islamophobic, and if that was having any effect on Indonesians’ perception of average Americans.
“We have been made aware of some evidence of Islamophobia affecting certain individuals,” he replied. “Our president has been in close contact with President Obama with regard to the recent threat to burn Korans. We asked the administration to do all that it could to prevent that despicable act from taking place.”
He added: “We have a shared belief in the promotion of religious tolerance, and our democratic system makes it possible for people with disagreeable views to find a space to express them. But we must assure that this issue does not complicate matters.”
Another participant asked Natalegawa how educational exchanges could be improved from their current dismal levels.
Natalegawa conceded that he’s extremely disappointed with the fact that only 7,000 Indonesians now study at American colleges and universities, down from 14,000 only 10 years ago. Those numbers fell dramatically after the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, strict U.S. visa requirements enacted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and U.S. travel advisories issued after the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali.
Likewise, only 130 American students are currently enrolled in Indonesian institutions of higher learning — a number Natalegawa said is also way too low.
“We must be brutally honest to find out where we are going wrong, identify where the bottlenecks are, and which opportunities are being missed,” he told his audience. “This is part and parcel of strengthening our bilateral relations. We plan to have an education summit next March or April to bring this issue to the fore. But this should not be a one-way process. Hopefully, I’d like to think that U.S. students would also find it worthwhile to study in Indonesia.”