Obama in Indonesia
What Obama's Visit to Indonesia Means for Asia
By HANNAH BEECH / JAKARTA
Monday, Mar. 29, 2010
The bronze statue of a 10-year-old Barack Obama, shod in sneakers and holding aloft a butterfly, quickly turned into a tourist attraction. Foreigners flocked to the public park in Jakarta to honor the U.S. President, who lived four years of his childhood in the Indonesian capital. Locals visited, too, but they weren't as pleased. "Indonesians mostly came to protest," says park groundskeeper Yunus. "They didn't want the statue here." Less than three months after a local Obama fan club raised $10,000 for the monument, it was quietly moved in February to a nearby school where Obama had studied. "I'm not against Obama," says Protus Tanuhandaru, one of the Indonesian founders of a Facebook page that collected nearly 60,000 fans calling for the figure's removal. "But it's wrong to have a statue in a public park of someone who has contributed nothing to Indonesia."
For a man who calls himself "America's first Pacific President," Obama's planned visit to Indonesia is being heralded as a homecoming. Millions of Indonesians consider Barry Soetoro, as he was once known by his Indonesian stepfather's surname, an honorary citizen. But even as Obama takes a trip down memory lane (followed by a visit to Australia), the fate of his boyhood likeness underscores his, and America's, growing image problem across Asia. Soon after Jakarta city workers used the cover of darkness to relocate the young Barry's statue, top U.S. diplomatic envoys were in Beijing to repair foundering relations with the world's third largest economy. Meanwhile, Japan, the world's No. 2 economy, has been calling for a more "equal" (read: less submissive) relationship with the U.S. That's because the Democratic Party of Japan, which came to power last year for only the second time in half a century, won votes by pledging to break with past governments that hewed too closely to American foreign policy.
A New Asia
Asia's increasingly assertive leaders are demanding that the U.S. recognize the continent's growing economic and geopolitical clout. Many feel that Obama, despite his personal ties to Asia, isn't giving the region the respect it feels it merits. An editorial in the Bangkok Post — the leading English-language daily in Thailand, a nation that is usually dependably pro-American — summed up the prevailing sentiment: "Mr. Obama's promises about restoring U.S. interest in Asia ... have proved so far to be more talk than substance."
Asia matters for America. China is the third biggest consumer of American goods, after Canada and Mexico. The No. 4 spot belongs to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the 10-nation bloc that was founded, with American prodding, as a bulwark against communism in the 1960s. China's economic resilience (8.7% GDP growth in 2009) helped the U.S. and other developed nations avoid even worse pain from the global financial crisis. The only other major economies that posted decent growth in an otherwise dismal year? India and Indonesia. Asia, in other words, thinks it is shoring up the global economy — and it wants its efforts appreciated.
Obama has spoken persuasively about Asia's significance. Last November, on his first visit to the continent as President, Obama vowed to address a perception that the George W. Bush Administration had overlooked Washington's Pacific allies. "I want every American to know that we have a stake in the future of this region," Obama said in Tokyo, "because what happens here has a direct effect on our lives at home." But since then the Obama Administration has dropped the ball on promoting U.S.-Asia trade, neglecting to implement regional free-trade pacts. "We do hope that [Obama's Asia visit] will not be like Santa Claus coming and just giving a few gifts and then flying away," says Thailand's Deputy Commerce Minister Alongkorn Ponlaboot, who has criticized what many Asians perceive as American protectionism. "Because what we need from America is conviction and sincerity that translate into real action."
Why Indonesia Matters
Indonesia deserves just that. Obama's trip is crucial for introducing Americans to a country that may not evoke much beyond earthquakes and tsunamis but is nevertheless key to U.S. interests. A 17,000-island archipelago, Indonesia boasts the world's biggest Muslim population. It is also the world's third largest democracy (after India and the U.S.), proving that Islam need not be the enemy of political freedom.
Back when Obama lived in Jakarta, where his American mother was an anthropologist and aid worker, Indonesia was ruled by a dictator and mired in poverty. Today, it is a proud member of the G-20 club of wealthiest economies. While much of Indonesia is still poor (18% live under the poverty line), the country is finally using the profits from its plentiful natural resources, such as natural gas and a horde of minerals, to lift up its citizens. "Foreigners used to think of Indonesia as a place of natural disasters," says Gita Wirjawan, the head of the nation's investment board, who earlier this year traveled to the U.S. to drum up interest in his homeland. "But now they realize that this is a $550 billion economy that's on an upward trajectory."
That's partly because Indonesia has done well fighting terrorism. Most Indonesians practice a syncretic, moderate form of Islam. Yet a small band of homegrown extremists is waging a bloody jihad. A string of bombing campaigns, striking everywhere from Jakarta to the holiday isle of Bali, has claimed hundreds of foreign and local lives over the past eight years. Just weeks before Obama was due in Indonesia, police shot dead at an Internet café outside Jakarta a man believed to have orchestrated the 2002 bombings of two Bali nightclubs. Indonesia's efforts to counter its terror threat — so far it has had impressive success in netting hundreds of suspected extremists and re-educating youths susceptible to the call of militant clerics — can provide the world lessons on how to excise the cancer of religiously inspired violence from the Islamic faith.
There's no question that orthodox dogma is gaining sway in Indonesia, like elsewhere in the Muslim world. In Jakarta, for instance, the number of women wearing headscarves has increased dramatically compared to a decade ago. As local governments have gained more autonomy, some have implemented a variety of Islamic-based legislation — ranging from enforced Koran literacy for Muslim children to the as-yet-unenforced stoning to death for adultery — despite the fact that Indonesia is officially a secular nation. At Menteng Elementary School where Obama once studied, the principal and many teachers wear veils. The Muslim prayer room in the public school is much larger than it was when Obama attended classes there.
Nevertheless, just around the corner from the school is a Protestant church, as well as a Starbucks and a Dunkin' Donuts. For all its recent conservative leanings, Indonesia is hardly in danger of turning into a theocratic state, and the nation's pluralistic underpinnings are something Obama will doubtless celebrate during his visit.
Predictably, some hard-line Islamic groups have already gathered across the nation to thrust their fists in the air and chant anti-American slogans. But their numbers, so far, have been limited. What reigns in Indonesia, instead, is waning optimism for Obama's efforts to re-engage with the global Islamic community, something he has managed to do with some success in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Last year, a local Muslim organization called Muhammadiyah urged its 29 million members to study Obama's Cairo speech when he called for a new beginning with followers of Islam. But since that historic address, Muhammadiyah's chairman Din Syamsuddin has felt his hopes deflate. "Obama indicated in his speech that there would be mutual understanding and mutual respect between America and the Muslim world," he says. "But one year later, we have not seen those dreams realized and tensions still continue."
More Hope Than Change
Of course, global expectations were always going to be tough for Obama to meet. When he was elected President, much of the world, including Asia, considered Obama their leader too. From climate change to a détente with Islamic nations, Asians hoped Obama would somehow solve a multitude of global problems. But there was no magic wand, nor has Obama's connection to Asia translated into significantly closer ties. "Even though he grew up in Indonesia, Obama's strength is as a local community activist, not as a foreign policy expert," says Bara Hasibuan, foreign policy chief for the National Mandate Party, a member of Indonesia's governing coalition. "So far, America's policy of benign neglect toward Asia has continued."
For decades, many Asian countries — from Japan and South Korea to Thailand and the Philippines — were used to counting on an American big brother for everything from economic sustenance to military security. Now there's a new top dog in town: China. Last year, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada proclaimed that this "will be the age of Asia and in that context it is important for Japan to have its own stance, to play its own role in the region" — a role separate from that of the U.S. It's no coincidence that such a sentiment was expressed precisely as China had overtaken the U.S. as Japan's largest trading partner.
Further south, China has surpassed the U.S. as ASEAN's third largest partner in commerce after the E.U. and Japan. The Southeast Asian club has signed trade pacts with Japan, India, South Korea and, most importantly, China, paving the way for a regional economic bloc that could rival the E.U. Note that the U.S. isn't involved. "If we are closer to China now, it is only because the U.S. has neglected us," says Kavi Chongkittavorn, a Thai columnist who writes about foreign affairs.
Wirjawan, the head of the Indonesian investment board, jokes that, "If I want to get Americans going, all I have to say is China's interested in a deal and they don't worry about the sanctity of contracts or other legal niceties." The creation of an Asian trade alliance could place American big business at a disadvantage. Though U.S. companies have historically invested far more in ASEAN than China, the pace of investment has slowed in recent years as the U.S. is squeezed by Asian competition.
If Obama's trip is meant to reassert American influence in the region, the President will also be mindful of Beijing's mood. China was one of the few nations where Bush was genuinely popular, and Obama has had a tough time matching his predecessor's success. In recent weeks China has attacked Obama for approving arms sales to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, and meeting with the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing accuses of masterminding a secessionist movement in Tibet. "The responsibility for the serious disruption in U.S.-China ties does not lie with China but with the U.S.," snapped Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a March 14 press conference in Beijing. Days before, high-level U.S. diplomats had flown to the Chinese capital to address a wide range of issues, and over the past year American officials have taken pains to underscore just how vital China is to the U.S. But there's a fine line between a show of respect and a full kowtow. "In many ways this helps give China an inflated sense of empowerment," says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Northeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. During Obama's first year, "America has played Mr. Nice Guy. China follows a different set of rules."
At least, at his Alma Mater in Jakarta, the Menteng school, the American President can be assured of an unreserved welcome. Two weeks before Obama was due to arrive in the Indonesian capital, batik-clad students practiced a traditional Indonesian gamelan-orchestra performance they hope to play for him. School principal Hasimah is proud of the school's connection to Obama, showing off a class photo of a young Barry standing among a crowd of Indonesian students. "His story provides a huge motivation to our students," she says. "It means that no matter what your background is, you can succeed if you are a good person with a democratic spirit."
The lessons of the school resonate in other ways. Annisa Luthpia, a 10-year-old pupil, giggles in confusion when asked what religion Obama is. She doesn't know — and doesn't care. Says the Muslim girl of the Christian American President: "He seems like a very nice man." Obama's challenge is to persuade Asians that he is more than just that.
— with reporting by Robert Horn /Bangkok, Austin Ramzy / Beijing and Jason Tedjasukmana / Jakarta