JAKARTA — It may not seem much consolation for the fact that President Barack Obama has twice had to postpone a trip to Southeast Asia’s premier country, one where he enjoyed a happy, multi-ethnic childhood.
But the announcement by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates of a resumption of contact with Indonesia’s special forces known as Kopassus may be symbolically as important as the presidential visit, now set for November. The renewed ties will be limited at first — perhaps only involving staff-to-staff meetings — but are viewed as steps toward U.S. training of the elite unit.
No one doubts that Kopassus behaved brutally in East Timor and Aceh, but up till now the U.S. attitude has been seen as a slight by Indonesians who otherwise have little time for the country’s military. Indonesians feel they have received little reward for recovering both democracy and self-respect. It is arguably the most open, democratic and pluralistic society in the region. It is also one where, unlike most of the neighbors with whom the U.S. enjoys close military relations, civil-society groups can operate freely.
The U.S. decision is not the end of this story. A U.S. congressional vote still bans Kopassus troops from training in the United States. But the announcement may begin to awake Washington to the fact that the United States has much bigger interests in Asia than handing out punishments for actions a decade or more ago.
“Good China policy involves engaging others in the region,” Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, recently remarked. On that score, no country deserves more U.S. attention than this archipelago nation, which is as wide as the continental United States, dominating the strategic straits that link the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and the Pacific, and with an open, resource-rich economy of 250 million people.
U.S. influence faces a challenge from China, which is using its newfound commercial power to spread influence in Southeast Asia, and to extend the reach of its navy throughout the South China Sea. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is due to visit Jakarta, too, and though he lacks the personal appeal that Mr. Obama has for Indonesians, he will come bearing many gifts for a nation that traditionally has regarded China with suspicion.
President President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia is basking in the sun of its democratic politics, economic stability and membership in the Group of 20, but he has yet to develop a clear foreign policy agenda. Indonesia is trying to define its role in the world and determine how best to relate to other major players. So the time is ripe for a major step-up in U.S. engagement.
Last year, the two agreed on a comprehensive partnership arrangement but it is proving hard to put flesh on it. There appears scant understanding among U.S. politicians swayed by special interest groups of how much damage has been done to the relationship with a natural ally by the Kopassus issue. Portrayal of Indonesia as a hotbed of Islamic terrorism, despite its successes in hunting terrorists, is another irritant.
It makes little sense to focus on such issues at a time when the United States is strengthening ties with India, gradually building them with Vietnam, and through its links with Japan, Australia and South Korea, shoring up its position in Asia in the face of China’s influence. For sure, Indonesia, like its neighbors, wants Chinese investment but also wants to counter China’s high-profile naval build-up. While China’s territorial claims do not quite extend to Indonesian waters, they have huge strategic implications for an archipelago nation.
Washington attention to Indonesia’s importance should also make U.S. business more aware of the sales and investment opportunities in a market that has historically been very profitable for foreign business. The declining U.S. share of trade and investment may be hard to reverse given the growth of East Asian economies. But there is not much resistance to U.S. cultural influence, however much Indonesians may resent U.S. policies in the Middle East.
Mr. Yudhoyono sees himself as a bridge builder. But between whom? Indonesia has no strong G-20 agenda. It would like to play a larger role in the Muslim world except that its secular Constitution and relaxed attitudes are out of step with Middle Eastern Islam. China business is the talk of the town but there are few signs that Jakarta, always close to Japan, has a clear policy to deal with Beijing. Links with India, closer geographically and culturally than China, are far weaker than they should be.
That makes it all the more important that the United States remove self-imposed obstacles to its influence in Southeast Asia by focusing on an Indonesia seeking to define its own strategic interests and partners. The decision on Kopassus must be just the beginning.