Obama arrives in Indonesia to fanfare, but Mount Merapi ash will cut visit short

President Obama's visit to Indonesia, the world’s fourth-largest democracy and the country with more Muslims than any other, is expected to cover a broader range of issues than his trip to India.

By , Correspondent

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    Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, left, introduced Indonesian armed forces chief of staffs to President Obama, center, at Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Tuesday.
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Spectators huddled under colorful umbrellas Tuesday to watch President Obama’s cavalcade tear through the center of Jakarta amid a light, tropical rain.

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, normally austere and rigid, met his US counterpart with a smile, but the ash clouds overhead forebode what some people here already feared.

The president Indonesians know best as "Little Barry" from the neighborhood of Menteng, has bumped up his departure by several hours amid fears that ash from an erupting volcano could disturb air travel. Dozens of international flights were canceled over the weekend after Mount Merapi, a volcano around 500 miles to the east of Jakarta, sent up its biggest blast in nearly a century.

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Mr. Obama arrived in Jakarta after spending three days in India, where he focused on deepening economic ties through US investment, pledged better cooperation on fighting terrorism, and threw his support behind adding India as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Similar themes will factor into his visit to Indonesia, the world’s fourth-largest democracy and the country with more Muslims than any other. But analysts here say his trip will cover a broader range of issues, including education and climate change.

Setting the stage

Obama’s 10-day state visit to Asia is largely aimed at opening the region’s fast-growing financial markets to US goods and improving bilateral ties that will allow it to balance against China’s expanding regional ambitions.

In the past year, the United States has drafted a number of cooperation agreements with Indonesia, including a comprehensive partnership focused on boosting US support for good governance and education, improved security, peacekeeping initiatives, and economic development.

Those agreements set the stage for Obama’s brief visit, which analysts say will be mostly symbolic. Though they also say it will reinforce investment deals and political cooperation that has been happening since Obama took office.

“It’s part of a bigger picture,” says James Castle, the vice president of the American Chamber of Commerce. “It provides the framework that will make it easier for both countries to understand each other and work together. So it’s much more than a drive-by. It puts the final stamp on the first step of a big process.”

Indonesia's path

Indonesia has come a long way since 1998, when former strongman Suharto lost his grip on power. Indonesia’s large population, with 240 million people; its wealth of natural resources, including lucrative oil and gas concessions; and its growing leadership role in Southeast Asia now make it an attractive destination for investment, say economists.

But like many developing nations, it still faces problems with corruption and paltry infrastructure. Those concerns, combined with a lack of legal certainty, as well as the strong role the government plays in the private sector, give foreign investors some pause, says Castle.

China, however, has not moved so slowly to invest in Indonesia. Just one day before Obama’s arrival a trade delegation from Beijing pledged to invest $6.6 billion in various infrastructure and development projects.

“At the regional level, there is certainly a tug of war between China and the US over Indonesia,” says Evan Laksmana, an analyst at the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Indonesia would prefer to remain neutral,” he said. “But business people here are still wary of Chinese investors, and the military remains concerned with Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea. Most of us are more comfortable dealing with the US.”

Winning over Indonesia

Winning Indonesia, however, a country many analysts see as playing an increasingly important role in the G-20 and Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional grouping, will mean creating an equal partnership, rather than one where Indonesia feels dependent.

After a suicide bombing killed hundreds on the resort island of Bali in 2002, Indonesia became the second front in the former President George W. Bush administration’s war on terrorism. Since that time Indonesia has shown great progress in tackling terrorism, thanks in part to US backing of a state counterterrorism police unit known as Detachment 88. But those protesting Obama’s visit say they see little difference between his administration and that of his predecessor.

Hardline groups call the US an anti-Islamic oppressor, and they criticize US involvement in Afghanistan and its tight relationship with Israel. Laksmana said if the US intends to deepen its friendship with the world’s largest Muslim country Obama needs to undo the damage from the Bush years.

Many expect Obama to deliver a speech that expands on one he gave last year in Cairo and had at its heart outreach to the Muslim world. Some analysts warn, however, that playing the Muslim card too strongly could backfire on the US president.

“We’re not comfortable inserting religion into our foreign policy, and we haven’t done this traditionally,” said Laksmana, who explained that despite its large Muslim population, Indonesia carries little influence in the Arab world.

Anies Baswedan, the dean of Paramadina University in Jakarta, agrees. But, he says, “one of the important variables in defining Indonesia is religion, like it or not.”

In India Obama fielded questions about his administration’s relationship with Pakistan, and there are worries his visit to Jakarta could draw similarly challenging confrontations. Analysts say he should tread carefully, since many see this as a fence-mending visit.

Indonesians felt slighted after Obama cancelled three visits planned for earlier in the year, and Laksmana says bringing up tough topics such as military reform and human rights abuses could prove disastrous.

Indonesia on human rights

Human rights activists still hope Obama will draw attention to a spate of attacks against religious minorities in Indonesia in recent months. Otherwise, Obama’s speech would contradict the approach his administration took toward religious freedom by defending the plan to build a mosque at Ground Zero, says Andreas Harsono from Human Rights Watch.

“The relationship should be grounded in reality, not rhetoric,” he says, noting that abuses by the police and military continue, particularly in far-flung regions like Papua.

Mr. Baswedan says a message of trust and everlasting friendship is what needs to resonate from Obama’s visit. But he can also draw attention to a country that many believe has been given short shrift.

“Obama can be a spokesperson for the success of Indonesian democracy,” said Baswedan, “if he can address to the world that this is a country with extreme diversity and various religious groups, yet it has been able to maintain its unity and is moving forward.”

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