The valuable Indonesian connection 

By Manik Mehta, Special to Gulf News
Published: February 13, 2009, 22:58

US President Barack Obama's promise that he would visit a Muslim 
country this year in an effort to reach out to Muslims, estranged by 
what is perceived as the Bush administration's arrogance and 
belligerence, have resonated favourably in Indonesia. 

Jakarta is taking pains to highlight its "special connection" with 
the new US president who spent his formative years in that country 
and has had exposure to the local culture and language. 

Indeed, when Obama recently uttered the Bahasa words Apa Khabar? (How 
are you?) to an Indonesian, it was caught by television cameras and 
relayed to the millions of elated Indonesians glued to their 
television sets watching the new president's inauguration.

However, Indonesia can help Washington cultivate friends and 
refurbish America's tarnished image in the Muslim word. 

In an interview in New York, Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat, Indonesia's 
ambassador in Washington DC, told me that Indonesia would be happy 
to "help in any way we can between our friends". 

It is indeed significant that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 
first official overseas trip, her forthcoming Asian tour, will 
include Indonesia, along with Japan, China and South Korea. 

Obama is keen to send the right signals to the Muslim world, 
including Iran, with which the new administration is now willing to 
start a dialogue. Indonesia could help clear the boulders in the way 
of such a dialogue. America needs friends in the Muslim world and, as 
Parnohadiningrat put it, "we can try to facilitate such contacts". 

Besides being the country with the world's largest Muslim population, 
Indonesia was also until recently a member of the Organisation of 
Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec). Indonesia opposes rising oil 
prices which, it says, are not in the interest of the world economy. 
This approach went down well in Washington which views Indonesia as a 
moderate, secular and tolerant state despite having the world's 
largest Muslim population. 

The Indonesian government has worked with other countries to 
apprehend and prosecute perpetrators of major bombings linked to Al 
Qaida. Pundits in Washington say that, as a founding member of the 
Non-Aligned Movement and a member of the Organisation of the Islamic 
Conference, Indonesia does have the credentials to play the role of a 
mediator between the US and the Muslim world. 

Economic interaction between the United States and Indonesia has 
grown over the years. Two-way trade, at $20.5 billion (Dh75.3 
billion) in 2008, points to inherent growth potential. Indonesia's 
exports, dominated by agricultural products and commodities, 
contribute to some 30 per cent of the country's gross domestic 
product. The United States, a top market for Indonesia's exports, is 
also a major source of investments in Indonesia. 

Washington has already lifted the advisory warning on travel to 
Indonesia after the country witnessed two devastating terror attacks 
that killed foreign tourists and crippled the country's economy for a 

The election of Obama as the 44th President of the United States has 
given rise to optimism in the Muslim world which is looking forward 
to restoration of normal and friendly relations. 

Navigating cautiously through the minefield of complex issues, the 
Indonesian ambassador said that if Obama "really thinks that 
Indonesia could play a role to help bring about peace, stability and 
security, we will be glad to help in any way we can". 

Indonesia is very keen to play host to Obama. "One of the senior 
senators has already asked President Obama to visit Indonesia which 
also is a representative of the Muslim world. We would be very 
pleased to welcome Obama," the ambassador added.

Indonesia's Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, who recently visited the US, 
held talks with Vice-President Joe Biden, and discussed a host of 
issues, including security. 

The latest comments by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about 
future ties with the US have sparked interest in Washington's 
diplomatic circles. Both sides need a diplomatic nudge to start the 
dialogue. The idea of using Indonesia as a facilitator of such a 
dialogue is not without merits. 

Manik Mehta is a commentator on Asian affairs. ... 85408.html 

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