“Clinton’s Reward to Indonesia”

Clinton’s Reward to Indonesia,” The Guardian, 19 February 2009.

Madame Secretary hits the world’s largest Muslim democracy; it won’t be for the last time.

clintonindonesiaHillary Clinton‘s first overseas tour as US secretary of state looks suspiciously like the trips she took as first lady. The eight-day jaunt to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China has featured tea ceremonies, visits to local universities and sessions with young children. But as diplomat-in-chief for President Barack Obama, her travels carry a newfound heft, and the Clinton-led delegation’s landing in Indonesia on Wednesday is further proof that major changes to US foreign policy are afoot.

“It’s no accident that I’m here,” Clinton declared within the first few hours after her arrival in Indonesia. And she’s right. Of course, Obama’s biography – his time spent in Indonesia, his sister’s Indonesian parentage and his interest in connecting with Muslim nations – looms large. His direct inaugural message to Muslims and the granting of an early television interview to Arabic-language station Al-Arabiya were other early signs of engagement.

But choosing Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most-populous country and largest Muslim-majority nation, as the second foreign soil that Clinton visits, suggests the White House views stronger US ties to the country as more than emotionally cathartic. In fact, the nascent Indian Ocean Century places Indonesia at the centre of a new axis of grand strategy.

There are countless reasons to energise relations with China, with its powerhouse economy, Japan, long-time ally of the US and Clinton’s first stop, and South Korea, a key partner in negotiating and resisting North Korean nuclear designs. But the Indonesia-US friendship is particularly vital.

First, Indonesia’s democratic institutions are a dramatic achievement – and all the more remarkable for their youth. In 1997, when Clinton was still first lady, “It was hard to look at Indonesia as a model of success,” says Tom Pepinsky, a professor of government and southeast Asian studies at Cornell University. Indeed, the parliamentary and presidential elections that will take place later this year are an enormous surprise to many observers of the Indonesia’s 1990s transition from autocratic rule under General Soeharto.

“Now that we look like we’re going to have a third round of perfectly free and fair elections, and already have a relatively moderate legislature and moderate president, it seems that [past problems like violent voter suppression] are less of a concern,” says Pepinsky.

While some factions of Islam in Indonesia have become more conservative, the last two elections saw radical Islamic parties receive the least amount of votes, says Vishakha Desai, president of the Asia Society. Voters have elected a female premier and currently support “the most stable and democratically elected government that Indonesia has had,” she adds.

Further, the Indonesian military has abandoned its role as a political agent, which it openly maintained in the Soeharto years. “It is no longer a force for politics,” says Pepinsky, who has authored a study ranking countries with large Muslim majorities that have held elections and found Indonesia at the very top (the next most democratic country was Mali). Clinton’s visit, he adds, is a type of reward for good behaviour and “may signify a desire by the Obama administration to reach out in places where Muslim majority countries got it right.” Clinton will be listening with a keen ear, according to policymakers at the state department, who believe Indonesia’s successes could provide a template for what to do with fledgling democracies (and markets) in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Turkey and even Gaza.

Second, the issue of terrorism, still a major concern of the US, from Somalia to Sri Lanka, makes Indonesia a desirable ally. Indonesia has not always responded effectively to the threat of global terrorism. In 2002, just after the bombing in Bali that killed some 200 people, a senior US diplomat was quoted saying: “It is hard to think of another country in the world that has such a potentially big terrorism problem and has done so little to deal with it.”

But today, “Indonesia has made important strides in dealing with radical elements in their society,” notes Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Since 2002, both the Megawati Sukarnoputri and the Susilo Yudhoyono administrations have worked closely with the US in their counterterrorism venture – sharing intelligence, if not military resources. Using internal security forces comprising the military and local police, “they’ve been remarkably successful in rooting out terrorist networks,” says Pepinsky. “They’ve made it awfully difficult for them to operate in the open.” In a country of 15,000 islands that stretches 3,000 miles from Aceh to Papua, such progress is even more noteworthy.

In addition to being a potential playground for terrorists, Indonesia straddles the Strait of Malacca, a key thoroughfare connecting the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean and South China Sea – a region packed with increasingly important oil and natural gas pipelines. In an era of energy price spikes and projected scarcity, protecting of these pathways is suddenly of critical strategic importance to the US – a fact that, some speculate, means US military basing agreements are not off the table in Indonesia.

As with many international alliances recovering from the presidency of George Bush, there is rebuilding to do. “Our prism of foreign policy was so much through the war on terror that a very strong feeling emerged in the ASEAN countries that the US hasn’t paid attention to them,” says Desai, referring to the southeast Asian economic bloc that is headquartered in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital. On a number of instances, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice didn’t show for annual meetings at which the foreign ministers of ASEAN discussed economic policy.

Clinton’s early appearance may mend some fences, but the US still faces some wariness from regional power players. Din Syamsuddin, the head of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s 30 million-member Muslim political party, reportedly rejected an invitation to dine with Clinton during her visit.

The US can engage Indonesia directly with big multinational projects like climate change and counterterrorism. And by insider accounts, Indonesia is eager to boost its stature with this kind of partnership. This is a dynamic that befits a nation of Indonesia’s size. Both America and Indonesia are members of the Group of 20 and are among the top five emitters globally. Todd Stern, the recently named state department climate envoy who is accompanying Clinton on her tour, will likely address the issue of climate policy and an international price on carbon in advance of the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen this December.

The American response to the 2005 tsunami that ravaged Indonesia was a moment that greatly increased favourable impressions of the US, and Clinton’s push may well consolidate these gains. Still, America must not be seen to be encroaching on Indonesia’s “street cred” – for lack of a better term – in the Muslim world.

“It’s advantageous for those in power in Indonesia to clearly have Americans coming to them,” says Eric Tagliacozzo, who has written a book on trade in the Indian Ocean, “particularly given what happened in Gaza.” Appearing to seek the affections of the pro-Israel US could complicate international alliances between Indonesia’s leadership and other Muslim nations, who were almost uniformly against Israel’s offensive in the Gaza strip this December.

So, in Indonesia, Clinton may find that her charge is the same as it often was during her turn in the White House: skilful damage control.

Dayo Olopade

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