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.