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Things to look for in Indonesia

by Joshua Kurlantzick
November 10, 2010

U.S. President Barack Obama toasts with Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during a state dinner in Jakarta

Of course, President Obama’s trip to Indonesia is going to seem like a success. Having canceled two times before, the president built up anticipation in the country, and a large range of celebrations have been organized to mark his “return home.” Obama and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono formally inaugurated the multifaceted “comprehensive partnership” designed to upgrade relations between Jakarta and Washington on a wide range of issues. Obama also gave a well-received speech admitting that the U.S. needs to do much more to improve its ties to the Muslim world.

But as Obama leaves, how can we tell if the visit was more than a high-profile photo op? Here are some ways:

  • Real change in Indonesia’s investment environment. Despite Indonesia’s size, it has been largely ignored by U.S. companies other than natural resources firms. Many U.S. companies complain about the lack of coordination between Indonesian economic ministries, the high level of corruption, which actually has gotten worse since the fall of Suharto, and the poor quality of interaction between the central government and local governments. Any real spike in U.S. investment can only come if the investment environment improves significantly.
  • Obama sees Indonesia as more than an example. The White House still continues to feature the idea of Indonesia as a model “Muslim democracy.” The speech yesterday in some ways touched on these themes again. But many Indonesians do not like being viewed that way, and the description in many respects belittles the country’s accomplishments since the end of Suharto. A broader and more nuanced view of Indonesia would be an accomplishment
  • Jakarta plays a bigger role in addressing ASEAN’s key issues. Despite growing engagement with ASEAN, Washington still easily tires of the organization’s languid, consensual style. As Indonesia continues to regain its former strength, Washington would like it to take a more proactive role in addressing issues like the continuing political stalemate in Myanmar, ASEAN’s role in Asian integration, and regional environmental challenges.
  • The U.S.-Indonesia military-military relationship grows substantially. Before the visit, the Pentagon agreed to resume ties to Kopassus, the Indonesian Special Forces, as a kind of carrot for Jakarta. But many Pentagon officials still have enormous concerns about the Indonesian military’s human rights record, and recent reports of abuses in Papua don’t exactly help. Real, substantially upgraded mil-mil ties in the future would show a much higher level of comfort from the Pentagon, and from Congress, and would cement the strategic relationship.

(Photo: Jason Reed/courtesy Reuters)

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