Dateline Indonesia: Barack, Hillary and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

Lex Rieffel

Hats off to Hillary Clinton for making Asia the destination of her first trip overseas as U.S. Secretary of State. It is a powerful counterpoint to the feeling in Asian countries that the United States gave insufficient weight to Asian views during George W. Bush’s presidency.

A tangible uptick in U.S. relations with Asia will surely make it easier for the United States to deal the major challenges of the day, including the global economic contraction, climate change and migration.

The issues that Secretary Clinton will discuss with leaders in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing will be reasonably familiar to Americans who follow and care about foreign relations. The agenda for Jakarta, however, is harder to bring into focus.

Awareness of Indonesia in the United States is astonishingly low — especially considering that it is the fourth largest country in the world, with a population of 240 million —not far behind that of the United States, which is currently at around 305 million.

At the same time, many Americans are aware that President Obama had an Indonesian stepfather and lived in Jakarta from the ages of six to 10. Secretary Clinton’s visit to Jakarta may yield some hints about whether a “special relationship” will exist between the United States and Indonesia as long as President Obama inhabits the Oval Office.

A starting point for thinking about Secretary Clinton’s visit to the country is to recognize the intensity of nationalist sentiment in Indonesia. A great many Indonesians will be skeptical about having a special relationship with the United States. Religion is not the only factor driving this sentiment. Indonesians do not want to be “aligned” with any of the great powers. They prefer to have a beneficial partnership with all of them.

Moreover, their political sensitivities are now at a peak because Indonesia is in campaign mode: a general election for the legislature will be held in April and the first round of voting for the president will be held in July 2009.

The single best result Secretary Clinton could achieve from her visit may be leaving the impression that she listened carefully and absorbed what she heard.

One especially sensitive issue Secretary Clinton will not be able to avoid is the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is a “litmus test issue” for Indonesians. A false note could quickly become an issue in the Indonesian elections with potentially destabilizing consequences.


Unfortunately, most Indonesians view the conflict in black and white terms, which will make it impossible for Secretary Clinton to score any points in this area. The best tactic is probably to stress the importance being given by President Obama to resolving this conflict.

Perhaps the easiest issue for Secretary Clinton to handle will be preparation for President Obama’s eagerly anticipated visit to Indonesia. Many Indonesians were hoping his first foreign trip would include Indonesia — and feature a major speech on relations with the Muslim world.

Obama’s foreign policy team, however, seems to have been successful in shifting expectations toward a visit in November in connection with his participation in the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit that will be held in Singapore.

Indonesians should not feel badly about this timing given the critical domestic and foreign issues that President Obama will have to deal with during his first year in office.

Broader questions

The APEC Summit, however, raises two broader and more complex issues — the U.S. role in ASEAN and Indonesia’s role in the G-20.

While the case for a special relationship between the United States and Indonesia is not compelling, the case for a special relationship between the United States and the 10 nation ASEAN community is exceptionally strong.

For a variety of historical reasons, ASEAN is at the center of Asia-wide regional cooperation, where it plays a critical balancing role between the major Asian powers of China, India and Japan.

In several ways, APEC overlaps and competes with ASEAN. For many Asians, the Pacific-oriented APEC forum is a Cold War relic that stands in the way of a more mature relationship between the United States and Asia.

They would prefer to see the United States put more emphasis on the Asia-oriented ASEAN forum (and its related meetings). Between now and November, the Obama Administration will have to clarify its position on Asian regional cooperation.

The February 2009 visit will provide Secretary Clinton an opportunity to gain an appreciation of the Indonesian perspective that could tip the balance in the policy debate in Washington.

The G-20 issue is about cooperation at the global level. While Indonesia is not the most important emerging market member of the G-20, it can play a key role in consensus building because of its non-aligned status and its stellar performance as a new democracy.

Secretary Clinton’s conversations in Jakarta could be useful in preparing for the G-20 Summit in London at the beginning of April, which will be a critical test of President Obama’s leadership on global issues.

The Obama Administration is also grappling with the momentous issue of what to do with the G-8 Summit. One option is to expand it into a G-13 Summit that would exclude Indonesia. Another option is to replace the G-8 with the G-20, which includes Indonesia.

That may seem like a trifling issue of diplomatic minutiae — but it will weigh heavily in the balance because of Indonesia’s population size, Muslim majority and commitment to democratic rule. Here also, the Indonesian views conveyed to Secretary Clinton during her visit could tip the balance in one direction or the other.

Other important issues that will presumably be discussed during Secretary Clinton’s visit include the impact of the global financial crisis and steps to overcome it, the special role of Indonesia in the global effort to control climate change, a capital increase for the Asian Development Bank, and a possible grant for Indonesia from the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Hopefully, the war on terrorism will no longer be on the U.S. agenda, especially since Indonesia record over the past five years has been solid. Human rights issues, however, cannot be avoided, not only in Indonesia but also in ASEAN partner Myanmar.

For a successful first trip, Secretary Clinton will be looking for positive headlines on substantive issues discussed in Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing. In the case of Jakarta, in the absence of any hot substantive issues, how well she listens will be the measure of success.