Hidden Benefits in Delayed Indonesia Trip

In December 2009, a statue depicting President Obama was erected in a Jakarta public park. It has since been removed. (Stefan Geens/flickr)
In December 2009, a statue depicting President Obama was erected in a Jakarta public park. It has since been removed. (Stefan Geens/flickr)

By Ann Marie Murphy - President Obama has announced that he could visit Indonesia in November.  The announcement came after he had canceled the trip three times in 2010. Many pundits have pilloried the president for thrice delaying his visit to Jakarta, first to secure passage of the health care bill and later to deal with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

It was argued that the administration squandered an opportunity to capitalize on the Obama fever that swept Indonesia (where he spent four years of his childhood) to upgrade bilateral relations.

It is true that Obama's Indonesian connection is an asset in Indonesia. But it is also a liability in the US.  Some of the president’s opponents have used it to argue that he was not born in the US and is in fact a closet Muslim.

Originally Obama had intended to take his family on the trip, creating apprehensions among some supporters that images of the first family in Indonesia would be fodder for arguments that the president was vacationing abroad at taxpayer expense while abandoning his responsibilities at home.

Overall, there are real benefits to the visit's delay.  The two countries have been negotiating a Comprehensive Partnership designed to enhance the bilateral relationship and foster collaboration on transnational issues such as climate change.  The partnership has been the subject of painstaking negotiations, and a visit in either January or March would have occurred before concrete plans had been agreed upon.  An earlier visit would have been long on symbolism but short on substance.

Now, the President’s visit will take place after the two sides have unveiled agreements on education, security, and climate change among others. On September 17, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa chaired the U.S.-Indonesia Joint Commission, the first of what is intended to be an annual meeting designed to review implementation of the agreements.

The world’s second and third largest democracies were right to use the opportunity created by Obama’s election to broaden and deepen US-Indonesian relations.

Presidents Obama and (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) will formally sign the Comprehensive Partnership in Jakarta in November, and the symbolism of the visit will be backed up by the substance of the partnership.

The timing is right.

Ann Marie Murphy is an Asia Society Associate Fellow and Assistant Professor at the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University and adjunct research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University.