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Strengthening ties

November 17, 2011

US President Obama has arrived on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. He hopes to strengthen bilateral relations at a time when the US needs strong partners in Southeast Asia to provide a counterbalance to China.

President Obama arrives on Bali to attend the ASEAN and East Asia summits
President Obama is in Bali to attend the ASEAN and East Asia summitsImage: AP

Situated between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the world's biggest island state has an important geopolitical significance. "Indonesia lies at the crossroads between important trade routes that link the US with Japan, China and Korea and secure oil supplies from the Middle East," explains former Indonesian Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono. The US wants to maintain its presence to ensure there is security on the routes.

The US already has several other strategic partners in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and the Philippines, but Indonesia, which is a member of the G-20 and of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is growing in importance both politically and economically.

Whereas other countries are still struggling with the consequences of the financial crisis, Indonesia witnessed growth of 6.5 percent in the first quarter of 2011. Not only does the US need Indonesia as a counterweight to China and India, but also as a partner in the fight against the impact of climate change and in maintaining food security.

Presidents Obama and Yudhoyono
Presidents Obama and Yudhoyono boosted their strategic partnership last yearImage: AP

A bridge between Islam and the West

Haryadi Wirawan, a professor for international relations in Jakarta, also points out that Indonesia, which has 200 million Muslim inhabitants, can function as an important bridge between the Islamic world and the West. "Obama wanted to introduce different policies from his predecessors, who did not place much priority on Indonesia but now the situation has changed and Washington sees great potential in relations with Jakarta." Indonesia is considered an important partner in the fight against Islamist terror networks in Southeast Asia.

On his first visit to the country as president last year, Barack Obama and his Indonesian counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, signed a joint declaration to strengthen their strategic partnership.

This enhanced status also helps Indonesia - the world's third-biggest democracy - in its efforts to act as mediator in regional conflicts. "Our foreign minister has taken on the role of mediator in the conflict between North and South Korea," said Wirawan. "Both sides want to negotiate with each other now. We were also active as mediators in the border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia."

President Obama in Indonesia
Last year, Obama made his first trip to Indonesia as president after postponing three timesImage: AP

Fewer expectations

While the fact that President Obama is making a second trip to Indonesia is being seen as a sign that the US takes its relationship with the Asian state very seriously, there are fewer expectations than last year. In November 2010, the population was thrilled when the charismatic politician returned to the country he lived in for four years as a child. They were impressed by his words in Indonesian.

But this year, there are more misgivings. There were several protests by Islamist groups ahead of the visit. Ismail Yusanto from Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia says that Obama has not differentiated himself from his predecessor George W. Bush. "He is continuing his policies in Iraq and in Afghanistan. There has been no development in the Palestine conflict or the Middle East."

According to a recent survey by the country's leading polling institute, many Indonesians share this last objection. They had hoped that alongside closer economic and strategic cooperation would come a change in attitude regarding Palestine. On the whole, however, Indonesians think that relations with the US are on the right course.

Authors: Hendra Pasuhuk / Zaki Amrullah / act
Editor: Shamil Shams