Expectations for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to
Indonesia are sky high on symbolism and low on deliverables.
Accepting that balance-unsatisfying as it may be to many American
policymakers-is the key to engaging Asia.
It is encouraging that the Administration seems to understand
this. One can only hope that the appreciation for Asia's diplomatic
ways is rooted in a deeper understanding of America's strategic
objectives in the region. From a strategic perspective, the trip is
an excellent opportunity to tend to America's two most important
allies in Asia (Japan and South Korea) and consult with its chief
competitor for regional influence (China).
It is surprising and well-noted in the media that Asia should be
Clinton's first official destination as secretary of state. But
whenever she took this trip, Japan, South Korea, and China-in this
order-were virtually guaranteed a place on her schedule.
So where exactly does Indonesia fit in?
It is tempting to see Indonesia entirely through the lens of
engagement with the "Muslim world." Indeed, Indonesia is the
world's most populous predominantly Muslim country. Its gentle
faith, deep spirituality, and respect for pluralism are an
inspiration and example to the world. An Indonesian face on Islam
has the potential to completely change the way many in the West
Due to both President Obama's connections to Indonesia and the
strong diplomatic foundation created by President Bush,
U.S.-Indonesia relations are poised for a constructive new era.
There are two things, however, that Clinton should keep in mind as
she prepares to usher it in: First, Indonesia is much more than a
"Muslim country," and second, it is a developing democracy under
assault from a determined Islamist minority.
Much More Than a "Muslim Country"
Indonesia is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations's
(ASEAN) indispensable member. With Indonesia, ASEAN has a
population of 575 million. Without it, the association is 40
percent smaller. With Indonesia, ASEAN's GDP is about $1.2
trillion. Without it, its GDP is only two-thirds that figure.
Indonesia's 17,000 islands stretch over three time zones and more
than 40 percent of ASEAN's land area. Without Indonesia, ASEAN is
mostly packed together on land along China's south.
As China's gravitational pull grows, only Indonesia has the
critical mass necessary to anchor ASEAN in an independent and
outward-looking orientation. The combination of the remainder of
ASEAN nations is too disparate in political outlook and interest to
provide the balance. Without Indonesia at its center, there is no
ASEAN. And without ASEAN, each country in southeast Asia would be
forced to fend for itself in the face of China's meteoric rise.
For several years following the collapse of the Suharto regime
in 1998, Indonesia took a break from regional leadership to deal
with political revolution and economic tumult. When Indonesia
returned as a regional leader, it did so with a democratic
And anyone who does not think that makes a difference in
Indonesian foreign policy is not watching carefully enough. Concern
in Jakarta about the strength of ASEAN's commitment to "promote and
protect human rights and fundamental freedoms" has led Indonesians
to question the value of ASEAN membership. In the debate over the
ASEAN charter last year, the Indonesian House of Representatives
went so far as to virtually condition its approval of the charter
on progress toward this goal.
Geopolitics in Asia is overlaid with the pattern states cut
relative to their governing systems. America's five treaty allies
are all democracies: Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and
the Philippines. While a security "alliance" with Indonesia is not
feasible, a closer U.S.-Indonesia "strategic partnership" clearly
is. When he was in Washington this past fall, Indonesian President
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called for the creation of such a
partnership. Clinton has indicated that the United States is ready
to take him up on the idea. She is right to do so.
The U.S. should be able to strike a deal more closely aligned
with Indonesia's values than Indonesia's "partnership" with China.
Consider, for example, Burma. Despite their massive influence in
Burma, the Chinese have done nothing to help bring about justice in
that nation. The Indonesians, by contrast, have emerged as the
leading voice on the issue within ASEAN. The U.S. and Indonesia
should explore what they can do together to pressure the Burmese
junta to release political prisoners and move toward democracy. If
Indonesia can nudge ASEAN toward activism on Burma, the Chinese
will be hard pressed not to follow. The Chinese have, in fact,
acknowledged as much.
Burma should certainly be on the "concrete" agenda Clinton says
she wants to hammer out with the Indonesians. ASEAN is at a tipping
point in terms of governance. By Freedom House's calculation, half
of ASEAN is "free" or "partly free"; half is "not free." A
democratic Burma would tip the scales in favor of liberty. Such a
development would be good for all nations concerned: for Burma, for
the developing democracies within ASEAN, and for those not yet
democratic. And ASEAN's democratic disposition would be good for
the United States.
Uncertain Trends in Indonesian Politics
To say Indonesian politics today are freewheeling is an
understatement. In advance of April parliamentary elections, all
parties and possible presidential candidates are jockeying for
position. Virtually every combination of parties is being
discussed. Many of them make extraordinarily strange bedfellows.
For example, PDI-P, the party that serves as the vehicle for
Sukarno's pluralist legacy, has been publicly considered as senior
partner in a coalition with Islamist parties. The Islamist parties
are, of course, widely assumed partners of President Yudhoyono's
own Democrat Party-in whose government they already serve. And even
coalitions among mainstream Muslim parties and their fierce
Islamist competition are on the table.
Pancasila and Political Parties
It is often said that political parties in Asia are
personality-based as opposed to ideologically based. While often
true, such shorthand is a little too simple. For example, in
Indonesia, it overlooks a fundamental distinction in the parties.
Most Indonesian political parties, in number and representation in
parliament, subscribe to Pancasila, a word derived from Sanskrit
that enshrines the five non-sectarian principles of the Indonesian
state: belief in God, just and civilized humanity, the unity of
Indonesia, representative democracy, and social justice. Four
prominent parties reject Pancasila in favor of a Shari'a-based
Islamic government. On the whole, the Islamist parties are more
focused, disciplined, and audibly committed to their ideology than
other parties. These groups know that even if they never reach the
numbers of the pro-Pancasila parties, they can still dictate the
terms of debate. The efforts of mainstream parties to curry their
favor only validate that belief.
Clinton should be mindful of this dynamic and choose her words
and interlocutors in ways that support Pancasila. Indonesia is not
the Middle East. There is a misguided strain of American opinion
calling for dialogue with Islamists in the Middle East-the Muslim
Brotherhood, for instance. It is a strain that easily flows into
the White House's new inclination toward dialogue with all comers.
The Islamists are much stronger in the Middle East. Going out of
her way to accommodate them in Indonesia will give them a new edge
on their political competition.
On the Cusp of a New Era in U.S.-Indonesia
President Bush's policies improved U.S.-Indonesia relations.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called him "one of
the most pro-Indonesia Presidents" in history. President Bush
normalized military relations with Indonesia. He secured their
highly valuable cooperation in the war on terrorism. In 2006,
Indonesia was included in the Millennium Challenge Account
Threshold Program. President Bush also initiated a widely heralded
five-year effort to improve the Indonesian education system.
Although wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Bush Administration's
approach to the Middle East were not popular in Indonesia,
disagreements over these issues did not stand in the way of a
productive relationship on the things both nations did agree
By accident mostly of his birth and upbringing, Barack Obama's
popularity in Indonesia is off the charts. All ears in Indonesia
are open to what he and his representatives have to say. The way
Clinton frames her visit, what she talks about, and how she says it
will set the boundaries on a U.S.-Indonesia relationship that has
is Director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage