Window of opportunity may close
TODAY, 7 June 2010
United States President Barack Obama's decision to postpone his trip to Indonesia and Australia because of the oil pollution on the Louisiana coast is understandable but not without consequence.
This is the third time he has postponed his visit to Indonesia and this sends a signal not just for bilateral ties but for the wider Asia-US engagement.
For Indonesia, the government has expressed understanding but the popular sentiment is one of disappointment. This should not be overstated. Whenever Mr Obama does finally turn up, it could well be that his presence will evoke great interest and even adulation among many millions of Indonesians.
But Indonesian public opinion is fickle and equanimity can sometimes be a mask.
A window of opportunity is open still, but not indefinitely. It is important to see that a visit to Indonesia is not primarily about Mr Obama returning to where he spent some years of his youth. Far more important than nostalgia is the prospect for the future with this pivotal country in South-east Asia.
Indonesia has transformed itself since the fall of Suharto but the relationship with the US has lagged. A visit by Mr Obama could shore up American soft power in the world's largest Muslim society, and further encourage the country's vibrant, young democracy.
The visit can finally put military-to-military ties on a sound foundation. Entry for American exports and investment into the Indonesian economy - growing, stable and with a large potential market - can also be smoothed.
Just as his predecessor built ties with India, Mr Obama has the opportunity to transform ties with Indonesia. Such a new relationship would have implications for the wider region.
Indonesia is the centre of gravity in the Association of South-east Asia Nations (Asean), which includes US allies and friends like Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore. Asean is the hub for the interlacing free-trade agreements and meetings for the wider Asia. Whatever the confusion of acronyms, and despite the fact there are richer and larger economies and powers, Asean is ever present and has influence and acceptability.
The Obama administration has understood this and has revitalised ties with Asean.
The US-Asean Summit, which was inaugurated in 2009 with Mr Obama, can be developed to the benefit of both. At the very time that Mr Obama postponed his trip, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was in Singapore for a regional security dialogue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also expected to visit in July, making her fourth visit to South-east Asia since coming into office.
Even as US-Asean ties strengthen, both must consider how best to square this with relations that each has with giants China and India. The idea for a new Asia-Pacific Community has been talked about by Australian Premier Kevin Rudd, although without specific details about who to include and how the meeting would proceed.
Some more specifically suggest expanding the East Asian Summit to bring in the US. This is an annual meeting that Asean hosts and includes China, Japan, South Korea and India, as well as Australia and New Zealand. An alternative mode being considered is for an Asean+8 meeting which would include the US and the other same countries, but be less often.
In all this, the current postponement is a reminder of the gap between good intentions and actual outcomes.
There should be no doubt that Mr Obama is sincere in wanting to visit Indonesia and to strengthen ties with Asia as a whole. He understands the economic potential with Asia's rise and the geo-political implications if the US is absent. Moreover, he seems predisposed to a multilateral process in which the US is a leader but need not dominate.
However, the American political reality that domestic issues trump foreign ventures is long standing.
What is new is that the US post-crisis agenda is even more demanding. This is because the White House has set a wide-ranging agenda of reform to follow up Mr Obama's campaign promise of change.
It is also because the American public is restive whether about the current environmental emergency or events in Afghanistan. There is a new, post-crisis angst over the loss of jobs and diminished economic prospects in the world.
The US-Asia relationship must be rebalanced between good intentions and these realities. There is need. A rising Asia should not be left alone and needs to be engaged. But the US and its charismatic but pressured President cannot always be there.