Obama's Postponed Trip and Future Prospects in Southeast Asia

A man holds a banner depicting US President Barack Obama during a pro-Obama rally in Jakarta on March 19, 2010. (Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images)

By Simon Tay

SINGAPORE, June 7, 2010 - President Barack Obama's decision to postpone his trip to Indonesia and Australia because of the oil pollution on the Louisiana coast is understandable but not without consequence. This is the third time he has postponed his planned visit to Indonesia and there are signals not just for bilateral ties but also for wider US-Asia engagement.

For Indonesia, the government has expressed understanding but the popular sentiment is one of disappointment. This should not be overstated. Whenever Obama does finally turn up, it could well be that his presence will evoke great interest and even adulation among many millions of Indonesians. 

But Indonesian public opinion is fickle, and equanimity can sometimes be a mask. A window of opportunity is open still, but not indefinitely. It is important to see that a visit to Indonesia is not primarily about Obama returning to where he spent some years of his youth.

Far more important than nostalgia are future prospects with this pivotal country in Southeast Asia.

Indonesia has transformed itself since the fall of Suharto but its relationship with the US has lagged. A visit by President Obama could shore up American soft power in the world’s largest Muslim society and further encourage the country’s vibrant, young democracy. 

A visit can finally put military-to-military ties on a sound foundation. Entry for American exports and investment into the Indonesian economy—growing, stable, and with a large potential market—can also be smoothed. 

Just as his predecessor built ties with India, President Obama has the opportunity to transform ties with Indonesia. Such a new relationship would have implications for the wider region.

Indonesia is the center of gravity in the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN), which includes US allies and friends such as Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore. ASEAN is the hub for the interlacing free trade agreements and meetings of Asia as a whole. Whatever the confusion over acronyms, and despite the fact there are richer and larger economies and powers, ASEAN is ever-present and has influence and acceptability.

The Obama administration has understood this and has revitalized ties with ASEAN. The US-ASEAN Summit which was inaugurated in 2009 with Obama can be developed to the benefit of both as well as relations that each has with the giants of China and India.

In all this, the current postponement is a reminder of the gap between good intentions and actual outcome.

The American political reality that domestic issues trump foreign ventures is longstanding. What is new is that the US post-crisis agenda is even more demanding. This is because the White House has set a wide-ranging agenda of reform to follow up the campaign promise of change. It is also because the American public is restive, whether about the current environmental emergency or events in Afghanistan. There is a new, post-crisis angst over the loss of jobs and diminished economic prospects in the world.

The US-Asia relationship must be rebalanced between good intentions and these realities. There is need. A rising Asia should not be left alone and needs to be engaged. But the US and its charismatic but pressured president cannot always be there.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and co-chair of the Asia Society's Global Council. His book Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America will be released by John Wiley & Sons in the US in the fall.