Obama's (now delayed) trip to Indonesia: Can he make it an ally?

The Obama trip to Indonesia can build a bridge to the world's largest Muslim country, countering Al Qaeda-tied militants in Southeast Asia. It can also counter China's expansion in the region.

In this post-9/11 age, an American leader can hardly ignore a country with the highest Muslim population in the world. The global nature of militant Islam requires the US to build bridges to moderate Muslims. And Indonesia, a mainly Islamic nation of 240 million people that combats terrorists, is one place for such a bridge.

President Obama plans to fortify ties with the Southeast Asian country during an upcoming trip (the start was delayed to June so the White House can focus on healthcare legislation). It will be a homecoming of sorts. Mr. Obama spent a good part of his childhood on the country's main island of Java, a legacy that entitles him to be America's "first Pacific president."

But the visit will be mostly work. The world's third- and fourth-most populous countries want to upgrade ties, building on their close cooperation in countering Al Qaeda-linked groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah. These local militants can easily assist in suicide bombings abroad, although the ones in Indonesia have largely focused on Westerners there.

The US also has a stake in boosting Indonesia as a model of hope for Muslims living under authoritarian regimes. It is showing that Islam and democracy can coexist.

After the 1998 ouster of dictator Suharto, much of the work in stabilizing Indonesia's democracy has fallen to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The former general, who received military training in the US, remains a popular reformist leader who has been elected twice.

Upgrading US-Indonesian ties won't be easy. Indonesia, for instance, must still reform its Army ranks and prevent human rights abuses if it wants its elite units to receive training in the US. And Washington can provide more aid to Indonesia's educational system – as a way to counter the teachings of radical Islam.

Most of all, the two need a common approach in dealing with the dragon in Asia's room – China, and its drive to dominate the region. Indonesia is a critical player in keeping China in check. (Much of China's oil and other imports pass by ship through ocean straits in Indonesia.)

Obama needs to offer Indonesia an elevated status in ties, similar to those with South Korea and Thailand. His Asian roots just might make it easier.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had the previous dates for Obama's trip.]

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