World

From cold war bulwark to
equal partner?

Indonesia and the US are expected to revitalize their “up-and-down” relationship after President Barack Obama finally lands in Jakarta for a 2-day visit to the archipelago.

Obama’s visit is expected to bring bilateral relations to a new level as the world’s largest economy looks for partners to counter the rise of China, now the world’s second largest economy.

Some critics, however, said Indonesia should understand its limits and not hope for too much from the meeting.

“The visit will renew Indonesia-US relations [affected by] the military embargo on bilateral defense cooperation imposed by the US due to human rights abuses in Timor Leste,” Indria Samego, an international relations expert at the Habibie Centre, said Monday.

During the tenure of former president Soeharto, Indonesia was used by the US as part of its policy to “contain” communism after the US withdrew from its war in Vietnam in 1974.

US support went so far as to back Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor (now Timor Leste) in 1975, following the departure of Portugal from its former colony.

The end of the cold war reduced Indonesia’s importance to the US, leading to Indonesia’s withdrawal from East Timor and the end of US military aid due to human rights violations perpetrated by the Indonesian Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus) in East Timor.

The US military embargo lasted more than a decade and banned Kopassus from participating in joint Indonesia-US military activities. The embargo also banned military equipment sales to Indonesia.

The rise of terrorism, China’s growing influence and Indonesia’s growing economy have thrust Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, into a position of regional leadership.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who visited Indonesia in July, announced that the US had officially lifted the ban on Kopassus despite some congressional opposition, in what was seen as a move to foster cooperation in advance of Obama’s visit.

Lifting the embargo has increased the chance of future US-Indonesian cooperation, Indria said.

Obama, who is on an Asian tour, departed from India on Tuesday and was expected to arrive in Jakarta on Tuesday and meet Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Obama is expected to launch a comprehensive partnership agreement with Yudhoyono during their meeting.

The US president’s itinerary includes stops in Seoul, South Korea, for the G20 Summit from Nov. 11-12 and in Yokohama, Japan, for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting from Nov. 13-14.

During his 2-day stay in Jakarta Obama is expected to visit Istiqlal Mosque — the largest mosque in the Indonesia — and give a public speech before an audience at the University of Indonesia’s Depok campus.

Obama’s visit means that Indonesia and the US will become “comprehensive partners” in the long run as both share common interests in several areas, said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an international relations expert at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

“Indonesia is a country that prioritizes legitimacy, the United Nations’ role [in global decision making] and multilateralism — values that Obama also supports, although they are opposed by certain groups back in the US,” she said.

Indonesia and the US, she added, could be friends and outspoken at the same time, sharing dissenting opinions.

Dewi said the public should not expect too much from the Indonesia-United States relationship with Obama’s visit, despite the Obama administration’s rhetoric on its commitment to make the Asia-Pacific region a priority as it counters China’s growing political, economic and military influence.

“Don’t expect too much because we don’t want to be disappointed. We are important but have limited power, and the US will definitely look at those limitations,” she said.

The US, she said, would continue to pay more attention to the role of China in the US economic recovery since “Indonesia and ASEAN have limited leverage,” she said.

“In the end of the day, Southeast Asia will never be the primary focus of US interests. In security, the Middle East, including Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan, will remain their main focuses,” she said.

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