Obama’s engagement with Indonesia will reap great dividends

The administration of President Barack Obama demonstrated a stroke of genius when they chose Indonesia as one of their key pillars in their strategy of “smart power”.

Indonesia was only the second country, after Japan, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited since taking up office as her nation’s top diplomat. She told reporters in Jakarta that “building a comprehensive partnership with Indonesia is a critical step on behalf of the United States’ commitment to smart power”.

Her visit paves the way for President Obama’s expected state visit to Indonesia either before or after the APEC conference in Singapore later this year. In Indonesia, he is likely to deliver his much anticipated landmark speech addressing US-Muslim relations.

I must admit that when I first heard that Mr Obama was to deliver such a speech on the US’ relations with the Muslim world, I assumed that it would be in Cairo (Egypt) or Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). Egypt has long been one of the most influential Arab countries, and is the largest in terms of population. It is also the recipient of more US aid – including military aid – than any country in the world, save Israel. Saudi Arabia, with its oil wealth and being home to Mecca, stands out as one of the most obvious countries to engage Muslims from.

Yet, the Obama administration appears to have chosen Indonesia. On further analysis, Indonesia could turn out to be an ideal choice.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim majority country by far. It is the fourth most populous nation, after China, India and the US. When people think of the “Muslim world”, many immediately conjure up images of bearded Arabs in turbans and long flowing robes. But the reality is that most of the Muslim world resides outside of the Middle East, in places like Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and North Africa.

Indonesia is also the world’s third largest democracy. By engaging Indonesia, the US is not-so-subtly giving notice to autocratic regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that the US is not turning a blind eye to their dictatorial ways for the sake of pragmatic expedience. This gels in well with Mr Obama’s repeated campaign promises to wean America off its addiction to oil which makes it beholden to their “enemies”.

Indonesia is not only aligned with the US’ renewed focus on Asia, but also lies in the heart of a dynamic region that the Bush administration sorely neglected – Southeast Asia. It doesn’t hurt that Mr Obama spent five of his formative years living and schooling in Indonesia, making him a ready celebrity in the vast country.

So by engaging Indonesia, the US is killing multiple birds with one stone.

But how does this affect Singapore? By engaging Indonesia, the US shifts the sights of the world on Southeast Asia and the ASEAN countries, which includes Singapore.

One area of engagement with Indonesia will surely be improved military-to-military relations. Indonesia is Singapore’s largest neighbour and a potential military threat, particularly if their armed forces are not sufficiently professionalized and under the full control of a democratically-elected civilian government. With improved military relations, the US will be able to influence the development of the TNI (the Indonesian army) and possibly base more of its forces in the region. This will be a much needed force for stability in the region, possibly averting a disastrous situation like in 1999 when the TNI went on a rampage in East Timor after the latter voted to separate from Indonesia.

Greater US engagement will bring with it greater economic opportunities for Indonesia and the region. The economic development of Indonesia is in Singapore’s best interests, since a thriving Indonesia will provide a nearby market for Singapore’s exports, and help us diversify from our dependence on the US and Europe to sell our goods and services to.

Obviously it is still early days into the new US administration. Whether he makes good on his promise to build a bridge to the Muslim world remains yet to be seen. It is also unclear whether the focus on the non-Arab Islamic world will win over the Muslim ground, which still looks with much reverence to the Arab world as the heart of the Muslim ummah. Nevertheless, I am optimistic after seeing these first steps, and I look forward eagerly to President Obama’s visit to the region in November.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

6 thoughts on “Obama’s engagement with Indonesia will reap great dividends”

  1. I think you shld get a job in Obama’s diplomatic corps ;-) Nice reading of this initiative…definitely unconventional compared to the previous administration…I like how it breaks stereotypes abt the muslim world…but I wonder with greater engagement with Indonesia by the US, how would M’sia react to that? Hopefully it doesn’t become a ‘why you and not us’ type of reaction that may have divisive repercussions on ASEAN.

  2. It is hardly surprising that Indonesia would be Secretary Clinton’s second destination in Asia given:

    1. Indonesia is among the world’s biggest functioning democracies.
    2. US relations with the other non-Arab Muslim state Turkey is already straining.
    3. Obama did mention he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia

    But I have my reservation on US trade policies for Southeast Asia You might recall USA’s objection to the Chiang Mai Initiative during the Asian Financial Crisis and in midst of the current Global Financial Crisis, interest in the Chiang Mai Initiative has been revived again.

  3. I have a very suspicious thouhts…question the motives… don’t like the conspiracies.
    Iraq is now under us … see the size of their embassy… middle east no more
    Indonesia is most populous muslim nation and still friendly … keeping close to prevent threats jahidis
    paskistan and iran are two remaining threats with afghanistan on war path … check mate muslims

  4. Dear Gerald,

    Good article. It is well thought out. The South East Asian Muslims are much less dogmatic than the Middle Eastern Muslims. I think that America would do well by connecting with the Muslims of South East Asia.

    A stable, confident and prosperous Indonesia will benefit Singapore. We can invest in Indonesia without fear. Such symbiotic relations is beneficial for ASEAN.

    I think my biggest worry is the Conservative lobby in America itself. Will Conservative Americans appreciate Obama’s efforts ? Thats the million-dollar question…..

    Best Regards
    Dr Syed Alwi

  5. Indonesia elections comng up in the middle of this year. Let’s see whether democracy has managed to consolidate itself in our giant neighbour.

Comments are closed.