Indonesia: Relations with the US and the Visit of President Bush

2003

Dr Anthony L Smith

Last year the US State Department sponsored a series of advertisements on Indonesian television showing that American Muslims are well integrated into American society. While Indonesia was regarded as a test case for these information segments, it is evident that a palpable distrust of the US has grown within Indonesia itself. It is questionable that these advertisements – regarded as mere propaganda by most Indonesian commentators – made any impact. Many Indonesians remain concerned about US foreign policy as it is applied around the world.

The US is paying more attention to Southeast Asia now than at any time since the end of the Vietnam War, and Indonesia is key to that interest. Indonesia remains the most important state within Southeast Asia, while sitting astride crucial sea-lanes. Since September 11, 2001, Indonesia has assumed an additional importance in Washington’s war on terrorism. Indonesia’s President, Megawati Soekarnoputri, made a visit to Washington on 21 September 2001 to express her solidarity with the US and condemn terrorism. The visit, made at a time when US air traffic had shut down, contained great symbolism. Not only is Indonesia the largest Muslim country, but various US officials have commented that Indonesia’s moderate Muslim community and democratization (albeit incomplete) provide a model for the Muslim world. Yet the Indonesian government, in condemning terrorism, has not been able to agree with US actions to prevent it. Indonesia officially opposed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – the latter in particular has fuelled anti-American sentiment.

Aside from the international ramifications, US interest in Indonesia centres around a homegrown terrorist group with links to al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). While the Indonesian government now officially recognizes that JI is a threat, here too is a disagreement. The Indonesian government is disappointed that Washington refuses to put the Acehnese separatists on its list of international ‘terrorists’, and accuses Washington of only being interested in terrorist groups that threaten western interests.

With these issues as a backdrop, President Bush made a visit to Bali – the site of Indonesia’s worst terrorist incident - on 22 October 2003. He ignored Secret Service advice not to visit Indonesia, which gives an indication of how important the Bush Administration saw this trip.

The chief outcome of the visit was for Bush to stress, on Indonesian soil, that he regarded Islam as a peaceful faith – and not linked to terrorism. This message was reiterated in a number of ways. Firstly, President Bush and Megawati made a joint statement to ‘Denounce Linking of Terrorism and Religion’ (the title of the press statement). Both leaders stressed that ‘democracy and Islam can go hand in hand’. Secondly, the joint statement also gave support to an ‘independent, sovereign and viable Palestinian state’ – which is designed to counter anger directed at the US over the Palestinian issue. Third, Bush met with important religious leaders, including Hashyim Muzadi and Syafii Ma’arif of the largest Muslim organizations, as well as the leaders of other faiths.

Other highlights of American President’s visit included his support for Indonesian territorial integrity, his urging for a peaceful solution to the Aceh conflict, and his promise to hand over terrorist suspect, Hambali, in due course. Bush made a gaffe on Indonesian television when he spoke of plans to restore military-to-military ties when Congress is yet to approve this. US officials rushed to retract the statement soon afterwards. At the end of the visit, Bush described Indonesia as a ‘vital partner’ and a "friend".

(The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect US Policy, the position of The Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, US Pacific Command, Department of Defense or any US Governmental agency.)

WATCHPOINT: Indonesia-US relations will require careful management by both sides considering the complications that have arisen in recent years. The reputation of the US inside Indonesia will, in part, be tied to events in the Middle East.

 

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