U.S. Interests and Policy Priorities in Southeast Asia

Article excerpt

[The following are excerpts of a speech presented to the House International Relations Committee, Washington, D.C., March 26, 2003.]

Chairman Hyde's invitation requested our assessment of U.S. and Indonesian relations, regional counterterrorism efforts, the situation in Burma, possible troop deployments in the Philippines, the political climate and election preparation in Cambodia, and human rights conditions in Vietnam.

Southeast Asia is a region in which democratization has proceeded at a mixed pace. In the past decade, the Philippines and Thailand have consolidated relatively young democracies. Indonesia, under authoritarian rule for thirty years, continues to make strides in its democratic transformation. In Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, we are promoting more open societies and democratic government. In Burma, although we were heartened by the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi last May, we have subsequently been disappointed by a lack of progress toward democratic change. At the same time, Southeast Asia is a region that is largely coming to grips with terrorism, again with some countries moving to take effective action more rapidly than others. The common threat of terrorism has actually strengthened cooperation and our ties with key Southeast Asian countries. One need think only of October 12 in Bali. That attack shows that terrorism threatens us all and it can happen anywhere.


Indonesia's status as the world's fourth most populous nation gives it an intrinsic importance. In addition, Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, thus making it a key player in our engagement with the Islamic world. Indonesia's importance to U.S. interests is further enhanced by the nation's ongoing transformation into a vibrant democracy following decades of authoritarian rule. We also have substantial commercial and environmental interests in Indonesia, a nation with significant natural, energy, and mineral resources, and a storehouse of biodiversity, home to some of the world's largest tracts of tropical rainforest and expanses of coral reef.

We view the Indonesian example of tolerance and democracy as a model for other Muslim countries. It is imperative that we support the democratic transition in Indonesia, not only because of Indonesia's intrinsic importance, but because its experience gives the lie to those who would claim that Islam and democracy are mutually incompatible. The outcome of Indonesia's experiment with democracy has profound implications for our strategic interests in fighting terrorism, preserving regional stability, promoting human rights and the rule of law, expanding access for U.S. exports and investment, and preserving the global environment.

The risks of Indonesia's failure to consolidate its democratic gains are sobering to contemplate. A breakdown in law and order would accelerate the spread of terrorism, crime, illegal drugs, infectious disease, and trafficking in persons. A dissolution of central authority and rising separatist movements would risk destabilizing the region, raise the menace of substantial humanitarian emergencies, accelerate regional environmental degradation, and invite the growth of militarism and violence. To avoid such daunting outcomes, we must assist Indonesia with its effort to create a just and democratic society.

* Combating Terrorism/Police Assistance

The terrorist threat that endangers Indonesia and its neighbors was graphically illustrated by the bombings in Bali in October of last year that killed more than 200 people, including seven Americans. Indonesia responded to this bombing by conducting a professional and competent police investigation that made remarkable progress in solving the Bali attacks and in disrupting the Jemaah Islamiyah terror network behind them. The Indonesian government has pressed ahead with domestic counterterrorism legislation and increased cooperation and consultation with its neighbors. …