Wooing Jakarta

Article excerpt

Byline: Will Oremus

U.S. strengthens ties to Indonesia, eyes China's influence.

Three times already this year, President Obama has put off scheduled visits to Indonesia, something the country has tried hard not to interpret as a slight. (He says he hopes to finally visit in November.) But last month Obama gave Indonesia a more significant gift: the lifting of America's 12-year ban on military support to Kopassus, the Indonesian Army's notorious special-forces unit.

Obama's move has provoked cries from human-rights advocates who say Kopassus has yet to fully repent its Suharto-era brutality in East Timor, and that it continues to commit abuses elsewhere. But the White House appears to be motivated more by strategy than idealistic principles in this case. Lifting the Kopassus ban is a tacit acknowledgement by the U.S. that Indonesia has grown too important to be treated as anything less than a full partner--especially in light of China's rising influence there.

Over the past decade, Indonesia's economy has been booming--some economists say it should even be considered a BRIC --and its democracy is one of the most stable in the region. It also boasts the world's fourth-largest population--all of which adds up to immense growth potential. These trends have not gone unnoticed by China, which has been assiduously wooing Indonesia as an economic and political partner. Last year Beijing announced a new missile deal with the Indonesian Navy, and at this year's G20 summit, China agreed to boost investment in Indonesia's infrastructure. Thanks to such ties, as well as a free-trade pact between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that took effect in January, China has a head start on the U.S. in currying influence with the slowly awakening power, experts say.

Still, not all of China's maneuvers have been well received. A recent survey revealed Indonesian suspicion of the trade deal, and last month Jakarta sent a letter to the United Nations objecting to China's sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. …