|Obama will mix diplomatic symbolism with a search for new export markets to boost the lagging US recovery [AFP]|
Barack Obama, the US president, has arrived in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, for the second stop on his 10-day Asia trip.
During his much-delayed homecoming of sorts to Indonesia on Tuesday, Obama will seek to engage Muslims and cement strategic relations.
Obama flew in from India, the world’s largest democracy, to Indonesia, mixing diplomacy with a search for new export markets to boost US jobs growth.
“‘Barry’ to Return Home,” reported The Jakarta Post newspaper on Tuesday, while the Koran Tempo declared: “Finally He’s Here.”
Homecoming of sorts
The president returns for 24 hours as an adoptive favourite son, having spent four years in Indonesia – from 1967 to 1971 – as a boy with his late mother.
|Step Vaessen reports on Jakartans who knew Obama when he lived in the city from 1967 to 1971|
An embarrassed Obama was forced to cancel two previous attempts to visit Indonesia earlier this year, as domestic crises arose – in March as he fought to pass his healthcare overhaul law and in June as he faced the cleanup of the massive Gulf oil spill.
A few days ago, Obama’s visit was in doubt once more, after volcanic ash from Mount Merapi raised fears that Air Force One would be unable to reach Jakarta.
But international flights returned to normal on Tuesday, and the White House gave the green light for the visit.
Obama had originally planned to visit his childhood haunts, but given his diminished political position following mid-term elections, a prolonged nostalgic visit would be politically ill-advised.
However, he is expected in Indonesia again next year, as the first US president to participate in the East Asia summit.
Bill Clinton was the last US president to visit Jakarta, in 1994.
“We’ve had this focus on Asia and on emerging powers and on democracies as kind of cornerstones of the kind of strategic orientation of the United States”
Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Jakarta, said that the US and Indonesia “want to move into the future with an equal partnership between two grown-up democracies”.
However, she said that significant scepticism and some small protests have greeted Obama, who is expected to have an official dinner with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the president of Indonesia, later today.
They will likely sign a “comprehensive partnership” that they agreed to a year ago, which covers security, economic and people-to-people issues, said Jeffrey Bader, Obama’s senior Asian adviser.
The US president will also visit South East Asia’s largest mosque – the Istiqlal – and give an open-air speech to the Indonesian people.
Officials say that, like Obama’s trip to India, his Indonesia visit should reinvigorate relations with an “inspiring” emerging democracy and an economy with a crucial 21st century role.
“We’ve had this focus on Asia and on emerging powers and on democracies as kind of cornerstones of the kind of strategic orientation of the United States in the 21st century,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and Obama speechwriter.
“India fits firmly in that category and so does Indonesia,” Rhodes said.
Obama’s Jakarta speech on Wednesday has the dual aim of engaging Indonesians on their embrace of democracy and economic growth, and of renewing the dialogue with Muslims opened at his landmark Cairo address in June 2009.
Obama’s speech will be his most high-profile opportunity for discourse on US relations with the Islamic world in a foreign country since his speech in the Egyptian capital in June 2009.
But officials cautioned against the idea that Obama would highlight his commitment to a “new beginning” with Islam, after a row over plans to build an Islamic cultural centre near the site of the September 11 attacks in New York.
About 15,000 security personnel, including the military, will be on the streets of Jakarta for Obama’s brief visit to a country that has fallen victim to several terrorist attacks in recent years.
|Deadly attacks were carried out on two luxury hotels in Jakarta in July last year [EPA]|
“We are already prepared at the places he is going to visit, and we have security in areas of threat in the event of a worst case scenario,” Hamidin, a central Jakarta police chief, said.
But the threat posed by rebels in Indonesia has been greatly diminished in the past decade, as groups loyal to al-Qaeda have been scattered and many key leaders have been killed.
Indonesia’s Detachment 88 anti-terrorist unit, established after the 2002 Bali bombings, is funded, equipped and trained by the US and Australia, and has scored impressive successes.
Jakarta wants to foster security ties with Washington, partly to act as a barrier against China, following spats between the two over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
“I think any president in the US must take Indonesia as a good friend,” Noor Huda Ismail, an Indonesian security analyst, said.
“They have no choice but to make friends with us because we will be their bastion in the region, to contain China.”
Obama seeks to deepen security co-operation without appearing to condone human rights violations by Indonesia’s military and police.
In particular, the Kopassus special forces have a poor human rights record in past campaigns against separatists in East Timor, West Papua and Aceh.
A new video showing the torture of Papuan men has brought the issue back under the spotlight as Obama visits Indonesia.