Opinion

The Kerry visit: A challenge

The visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry to Indonesia reminds us once again of our nation’s strategic importance and increasing role as a potential “driver” of critical policies and initiatives in the region that are aimed at assuring peace, stability and prosperity among our neighbors. It is a visit that is particularly timely, necessary and important for both countries.

Clearly, Kerry is embarking on an important diplomatic mission designed to continue strengthening ties between two of the world’s largest democracies.

We are the largest Muslim-majority country in the world; a strong and healthy democracy, with some of the world’s most vital trade routes within our maritime borders.

Indeed, as the US “pivots” its military and diplomatic attention toward Asia, Indonesia will continue to gain prominence and influence as it helps to shape the peaceful and prosperous future of the region. The question is, are we ready and willing to assume this role?

To be sure, the possibilities are endless — but so too are the risks. Thus, the task at hand is how best to balance our respective national interests with the demands and needs for international cooperation on a wide range of matters, including counter-terrorism, the protection of religious freedom and individual rights, and policies designed to increase international trade and spur domestic economic growth and investment.

It is most important, therefore, that the US continues to recognize and understand that Indonesia remains a proud country, with independent foreign policy demands. Consequently, our cooperation must be earned and not assumed. Likewise, it must be predicated on mutual respect and trust. Dialogue is crucial to achieving success for both countries.

So, too, is meaningful support for the institutions which underpin and protect our society and keep us safe from disruptive elements within our borders and which threaten to undermine our democratic values.

Conversely, Indonesia must also be prepared to accept a larger responsibility for engaging the US — and any other nation — on a wide range of economic, diplomatic and security issues. We cannot only be seen, we also must be heard and our presence felt on all matters involving or impacting our country and the region. It is a role we must embrace enthusiastically.

What Indonesia’s leaders say and do in the years ahead will matter more than perhaps at any other time in our history.

As a result, our leaders’ outlook and perspective need to adapt to this emerging reality.

We have the ability to become a vital mediator and bridge between the many competing interests in the region. Kerry’s visit provides a golden opportunity to begin the process of recalibrating the relationship between our two countries and, in the process, construct a new and deeper understanding of our respective goals and objectives — whether they are shared or independent.

In the next few months, Indonesians will go to the polls to elect a new legislature and president. No doubt, the US is watching carefully to see what direction the country will take.

Regardless of who resides in the Istana (Palace) or holds power in the House of Representatives, it is essential that our elected leaders are willing and prepared to embrace this new and challenging dynamic in Indonesia-US relations.

It is fundamental to our nation’s future that we get it right. The world will be watching.

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The writer was director for media affairs under the late president Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001), and headed the international liaison unit for the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan (2002-2003). He was special assistant to the head of the National Counterterrorism Agency (2010-2011).

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