A Symbolic Visit That Promises Indonesia Real Benefits

Much of the hype around US President Barack Obama’s visit on Tuesday revolves around his ties with Muslims and his return to his childhood home. But it also carries an understated strategic importance: it is a chance to finally sign the US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership.

The bilateral agreement, the product of a meeting between Obama and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Singapore in November last year, outlines the countries’ commitments in a vast range of sectors.

Robin Bush, country representative for the Asia Foundation, saw the new partnership as a switch “from one that, prior to the Obama administration, often focused on Indonesia’s role in the ‘War on Terror,’ to one that is a mature, multifaceted partnership in areas that are priorities for Indonesia

Historical Ties

The United States and Indonesia have had an often rocky relationship over the past six decades.

Under former President Sukarno, Indonesia was one of the four countries that pioneered the Non-Aligned Movement, which opted not to ally with any major power bloc, such as the United States, during the Cold War.

In the early stages of Suharto’s 32-year reign, Indonesia’s value to the United States ranged from being a bulwark nation against the spread of communism to an expansive market for the American economy.

Later, ties were strained over the Indonesian government’s string of human rights violations, including military abuses in Aceh, Papua and East Timor.

But Indonesia’s abysmal human rights record was swept aside under former US President George W. Bush’s administration from 2001-09, since the countries focused on the war on terrorism.

US-Indonesia ties was further strengthened after Yudhoyono announced a “zero enemies, million friends” policy in October last year, which matched Obama’s push for friendlier diplomatic relations with other countries.

Though Indonesia has yet to be on equal footing with the United States, it is gradually gaining ground. Obama, who grew up in Indonesia as a boy, can forge Islamic ties with a country that is home to the biggest Muslim population in the world.

“In terms of US partners in the region, Japan, South Korea and China all figure more highly than Indonesia. It is simply not on the same priority list,” Asia Foundation’s Bush said.

“It may one day assume a spot at the level of Australia, the Philippines and Thailand, but it is not there now.”

He said the Comprehensive Partnership agreement was a useful step, allowing Indonesia to “gain global recognition as an important US partner.”

Improved Relationship

The signing of the Comprehensive Partnership was postponed after Obama decided to cancel his trip to Indonesia on March 21, the same day the US House of Representatives passed a $940-billion bill to overhaul of the healthcare system.

Even though the agreement has yet to be signed, its spirit is manifested in other agreements , such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Science and the Technology Cooperation and the Framework Arrangement on Cooperative Activities, which was signed by the two countries’ departments of defense in June.

Currently, OPIC provides more than $94 million in support to six projects in Indonesia, in the energy, manufacturing and services sectors.

The military agreement, meanwhile, covers security dialog, education and training in the defense industry, procurement of military equipment and other “areas of cooperation.”

The partnership between the countries was further solidified with the establishment of the US-Indonesia Joint Commission, an annual ministerial meeting inaugurated in September by Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa and his counterpart, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

These programs are all in line with the Comprehensive Partnership’s goals, which were mainly drafted by the two countries’ foreign affairs departments.

Erik A. Laksamana, a researcher for the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said these agreements expanded “existing good bilateral ties between the two countries.”

Flood of Aid

The improved ties between the two countries spelled benefits for various sectors in Indonesia.

Obama announced in June that the White House had earmarked $165 million over five years for student exchange programs and scholarships and $136 million over three years for various climate change projects, after meeting with Yudhoyono on the sidelines of the Group of 20 Summit in Toronto, Canada.

Marty recently said both sides hoped to work on the sharp decline in the number of Indonesian students studying in the United States, now at around 7,000 from the previous 14,000.

The climate change fund, meanwhile, was meant to support Yudhoyono’s pledge at a G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh in September last year to reduce his country’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 41 percent by 2020.

In July, the two countries’ military ties reached a milestone when US Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the lifting of a 12-year ban on the Kopassus special forces, who were accused of rights abuses during the 1990s.

Under the 1997 Leahy Agreement, the United States was prohibited from funding security forces which had been implicated in human rights abuses, prompting it to sever ties with the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI).

“The lifting of the ban came as a result of Indonesian military reforms over the past decade, the ongoing professionalization of the TNI, and recent actions taken by the Ministry of Defense to address human rights issues,” Gates said in a statement in July.

The US-Indonesia Society (Usindo) said American officials recognized the benefit of improving Indonesia’s military capabilities.

“[It] would allow Indonesia to play a more substantial role in its effort to combat terrorism and maintain the security of the maritime commons,” the group said.

Washington has funded Indonesia’s antiterror activities, such as sending aid to Densus 88, the police’s elite counterterrorism unit, shortly after the 2002 Bali bombings that killed over 200 tourists and locals, including seven Americans.

Beyond these, Bush said Indonesia would gain “significantly from educational exchanges, technology transfers, training programs and other support that was part of the Comprehensive Partnership agreement.”

Remaining Issues

However, no bilateral relationship is ever without issues.

Nongovernmental groups said the public must remain vigilant against human rights abuses, especially by the Armed Forces, despite thawed military ties.

In September, the US Congress held a historic hearing on human rights abuses in Papua, gathering testimonies from Papuans and academics about violations committed by the military.

“Such an improvement must be accompanied by a clear and stern warning against any backsliding on human rights issues, which would seriously hamper America’s ability to improve military cooperation with Indonesia,” Usindo said in a statement.

Experts also agreed that the two countries should foster stronger economic ties.

Indonesia is currently one of the largest emerging markets in Southeast Asia and is considered a promising investment destination, despite nagging problems in its bureaucracy.

“Economic ties are currently the most underperforming component of the relationship, but is an area with enormous potential,” Usindo said.

Walter Lohman, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asia Studies Center, said Indonesia could improve trade relations with the United States by cleaning up its bureaucracy.

“This economic relationship is underperforming due to bottlenecks on the Indonesian side,” Lohman said, referring to corruption, poor infrastructure and inconsistent or non-transparent regulations.

“President Obama should be direct with the Indonesians about this,” he said. “All of America’s big plans for its partnership with Indonesia will be unrealized if the United States cannot underpin it with stronger economic ties.”

In a blot on relations, the US International Trade Commission last month decided to impose new duties on coated paper from Indonesia, saying subsidized imports harmed US manufacturers.

Despite such setbacks, experts said the countries would definitely carve out a beneficial relationship.

“Indonesia’s natural resources, its sheer size and population, its natural leadership in Southeast Asia, and its control over some of the world’s most strategic waterways — it would be foolish to ignore Indonesia,” Erik said.