Tuesday, February 17, 2009 4:14 AM
Washington, Jakarta and a multipolar Asia
C. Raja Mohan , SINGAPORE | Mon, 02/16/2009 10:08 AM | Opinion
When the US State Department Spokesman, Robert Wood, announced at a Washington
press conference last week his boss Hillary Clinton's our-nation foray into
Asia, a journalist asked him, "Robert, why Indonesia, why Indonesia?"
That Indonesia-despite being the world's largest Muslim nation, third biggest
democracy, and fourth most populous country-has had an extremely low
international profile is one of the major paradoxes of international relations
of our time. That paradox may soon dissolve as the United States prepares to
launch a major strategic initiative towards Indonesia.
It will be tempting to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's decision to
include Jakarta in her first visit abroad as a sentimental bow to the fact that
President Barack Obama had spent his childhood in Indonesia.
There is no doubt that Washington wants to take full advantage of President
Obama's Indonesian connection. But the American political decision to build a
strategic partnership with Jakarta appears to have been taken in the closing
months of the previous Administration. The new and positive American approach
to Indonesia was revealed when the US Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled
to Jakarta in early 2008 and reaffirmed the commitment to build a strong
relationship with Jakarta.
That Gates stays on at the helm of Pentagon and the new US president has a
personal interest in Indonesia has set the stage for what might be one of the
consequential foreign policy initiatives of the Obama Administration.
Just as President George W. Bush built on his predecessor Bill Clinton's
engagement with New Delhi, President Obama is well positioned to elevate the
relationship with Jakarta. The powerful
cocktail-sustained economic growth, renewed national self-confidence and high
level American attention-that worked for India during the Bush years might turn
out to be magical for Indonesia with Obama.
The US interest in a strategic partnership with Indonesia has coincided with a
new restlessness in Jakarta, where the foreign policy elite has been fretting
about the nation's underwhelming performance on the world stage.
After all there was a moment when Indonesia was among the world's influential
voices. It had hosted the first Afro-Asian summit in Bandung in 1955 and was a
founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement along with India and Egypt.
In the last few decades, however, Jakarta had steadily turned away from the
global arena to focus on its role as the lynch pin of a very successful
regional organization, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Powerful voices in Jakarta are now calling for a foreign policy that looks
beyond the ASEAN. Jusuf Wanandi, the doyen of the Indonesian strategic
community, has made the case most sharply last year.
Arguing that an exclusive focus on ASEAN has constrained Indonesian aspirations
for a larger global role, Wanandi argued that Jakarta must be "more active in
strengthening our bilateral relations with the big countries in the region:
Japan, China and India, besides the United
States. We should strive to develop closer cooperation with the big democracies
among developing nations, such as Brazil, India and South Africa."
Australia, which invests so much diplomatic energy in Indonesia, was quick to
pick up on the new signals in Jakarta. In June 2008, the Australian Prime
Minister Kevin Rudd proposed that Indonesia join the US, China, Japan, India
and Australia in building a new Asia Pacific
The Australian proposal aimed at privileging the partnership with Indonesia
above that with the ASEAN raised eye-brows across the region. In devoting
special attention Jakarta, the Obama Administration is confirming a new
political trend among major powers-the recognition of
Indonesia's recent achievements and their implications for the nation's
changing profile in Asia and the world.
A decade after the 1997 financial crisis that rocked the region, Indonesia has
stabilized its economy, deepened its democratic roots, nudged the once powerful
Army into the barracks, and peacefully resolved the conflict with a separatist
movement in the Aceh province.
While there are no dearth of Western critics pointing to the weaknesses of
Indonesian democracy and its economy, Washington appears to have finally woken
up to a Jakarta's strategic significance.
A partnership with a rising Indonesia is likely generate many new options for
Washington in strengthening regional security in Southeast Asia, promoting a
peaceful maritime environment in the Indian Ocean, structuring a stable balance
of power in Asia, regaining credibility
in the Muslim world, and providing a stronger political framework for
countering terrorism and extremism.
While it is basking in the new attention from America, there is no question of
Jakarta becoming a subaltern for Washington. As in New Delhi, so in Jakarta,
the commitment to an independent foreign policy is absolute. India, which
unveiled plans for building a strategic partnership with Indonesia during
President Susilo Yudhoyono's visit to New Delhi in November 2005, should
welcome the new engagement between Washington and Jakarta and its principal
consequence-the creation of a multipolar Asia.
As Indonesia and India go to polls shortly, there is no room now for a major
diplomatic initiative between the two countries. But deepening the ties with a
rising Indonesia and bringing it into such forums as IBSA (India, Brazil and
South Africa) should be among the major
priorities of the next government in New Delhi.
The writer is a Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,