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Although the White House’s meeting with the Dalai Lama has overshadowed news that President Obama will visit Indonesia in March, in the long run, the Indonesia trip will have a greater impact on policy. It’s rare to have an opportunity, during any U.S. administration, to dramatically change the course of relations with a major nation. Yet the evolution of democracy in Indonesia, the changing strategic environment in Southeast Asia and growing fear of China, and Obama’s personal popularity in Indonesia combine to create this chance. In the long run, Indonesia could become the kind of partner in Southeast Asia America has lacked in Thailand and the Philippines, our formal allies.
On the trip, Obama should focus on several critical points:
1. Indonesia’s leaders don’t want the country to be portrayed as a “Muslim democracy,” even though the country has the most Muslims of any nation on earth. There are sizable numbers of Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus, and Indonesians don’t see themselves, necessarily, as some example to other Muslim-majority states. In any even, most Arab leaders see Southeast Asia as a kind of backwater of Islam, and would be loath to take advice from Jakarta anyway.
2. Learn from Indonesia’s counterterrorism strategies. Sure, there are still occasional terrorist attacks in Indonesia, but the government has seriously degraded Jemaah Ismaliah, the main terror network. And it has done so without serious compromises of the rule of law.
3. Although Obama is not going to meddle in domestic Indonesian politics, he should find a way to subtly show support for the country’s embattled reformers. Vice President Boediono and Minister of Finance Sri Mulyani Indrawati both are under attack from some of the most retrograde elements of Indonesian politics. President Yudhoyono, though a committed democrat, is also a slow-moving consensus builder; without enough pressure, he could be convinced to throw Sri Mulyani and Boedino, the best hopes for reform, overboard.
4. Treat Indonesia like one of the BRICs. It’s not, technically, but after a decade getting its own domestic politics in order, Jakarta’s leaders want to reassume the country’s position as the leader of Southeast Asia and a significant player in international affairs.