Letter from Indonesia

By , David D. Newsom was ambassador to Indonesia 1974 to 1977 .

I have just completed a return visit to Indonesia, my first in over six years. This island country, fifth largest in population in the world, is important to the United States. It lies astride vital straits that link the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It contains resources in hydrocarbons, mineral, and agricultural products important to Western economies. It is a member of that significant grouping of Southeast Asian countries, ASEAN, that embraces other nations friendly to the United States: the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The Army-dominated government of Indonesia has, since the chaotic events of the abortive communist coup in 1965, placed major emphasis on economic development. Unique, perhaps, among major developing countries, there has been much less attention paid to expensive weapons systems. To someone returning after an absence, this priority is apparent.

Conversations and the visible evidence in visits to Sumatra, Java, and Bali confirm the statistical rise in per capita income and the standard of living. Although the country is still basically poor, there are new roads, improved communications, new and refurbished buildings, more bicycles, and fewer signs of abject poverty. Chastened by the financial problems encountered by the national oil company in the 1970s, Indonesia has avoided the debt problems of other major developing countries.

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Problems still remain, despite progress, in establishing effective family planning throughout the country, in assuring food self-sufficiency, and in managing an adequate balance of benefits in the complex development process.

Perhaps the most interesting trends are not economic, but political. Since the first of the year, Indonesia has been host to an international conference on third-world information and has taken new initiatives in relations with Vietnam. The chief of staff of the armed forces, Gen. Benny Murdani, made a surprise visit to Hanoi in February. A delegation from Jakarta's semiofficial think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was in Hanoi for a conference at the same time. The foreign minister of Vietnam subsequently visited Jakarta, as well as Bangkok and Canberra.

Indonesia's foreign minister will shortly visit Moscow, and a visit to the Soviet Union is scheduled for President Suharto later this year. Western friends have been asking Indonesians what these moves mean. Is a nation that has been perceived by many as pro-Western moving to a more neutral posture?

Clearly there are several factors involved. Indonesia is impatient with the lack of progress on the Kampuchean issue. There are hopes that more communication with Vietnam might break this deadlock. Indonesian leaders, also, remain deeply suspicious of the People's Republic of China and, to a greater extent than other ASEAN partners, see Vietnam as a counterweight to China.

The visitor also gains the impression that Indonesia is refurbishing its traditional stance of nonalignment. Sukarno, the country's first President and an architect of nonalignment, is once more being recognized. Although official relations with the United States remain good, there was clearly disappointment in Jakarta when President Reagan, canceling his visit to Manila last fall, dropped plans to visit Indonesia as well.

There may be still another factor. The visitor gains a feeling that conscious thought and planning are being given to the transition of leadership. Younger people are appearing in important posts in both the civilian and military sectors. Last year, the normal independence day program at the Presidential Palace included a short play on the importance of a new generation. Part of that transition may well be a reemphasis on historical traditions of the republic: aspirations to a leadership role in Southeast Asia and the maintenance of credentials as a non-aligned nation.

There are risks in these initiatives, risks of creating misunderstandings in other ASEAN capitals and among Western friends. The basic impulses represented - the desire for regional leadership, the continuing suspicion of China, and the assertion of nonalignment - should come as no surprise to those who have followed Indonesian history. The changes in 1965 that brought a new economic orientation and substantially modified the leftward political trend did not eliminate these traditions.

Secretary of State George Shultz will be visiting Indonesia in July. He will find a nation still oriented to the West in international affairs and strongly dedicated to economic development. He will, at the same time, find a nation reasserting its place on the world scene and the historic point of view of its nationalist movement.

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