Wed, 22 Nov 2000

Challenges to future Indonesia-U.S. ties

By Jusuf Wanandi

JAKARTA (JP): The relations between the United States and Indonesia have been going through a rough ride over the last six months or so. This has been partly due to some bilateral problems and sometimes to misunderstandings, including those between U.S. Ambassador Robert Gelbard and some high ranking Indonesian officials, including the Speaker of the People's Consultative Assembly Amien Rais, Minister of Defense Mahfud MD and a number of legislators.

To put the relationship in its proper perspective and, therefore, to create more professional and more friendly relations, now is a timely opportunity to consider a new relationship and the future ties between the two countries. Some suggestions would be useful here to improve relations.

It has always been argued that the two countries have many fundamental differences, such as those regarding their ideologies, political systems, stages of development and their international relations.

However, the bilateral relationship has been relatively stable over the last 30 years or so because of the Cold War, the importance of Indonesia in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is the lynchpin of U.S. relations in Southeast Asia, as well as in the nonaligned movement. As Indonesia becomes an important emerging economy, the attraction of Indonesia to the U.S. as a potential economic partner has further increased.

While some aspects of these bilateral relations have been maintained, changes have taken place because of the end of the Cold War, the economic crisis of 1997 and Indonesia's fundamental political reforms designed to turn the country into a democracy. The end of the Cold War made the bilateral relationship less important for the U.S. strategically, because the ideological divide has been removed and the U.S. has won out against the former Soviet Union and communism in general.

Now the U.S. places greater emphasis on her real national interests, which include expanding democratic concepts, human rights values, and the liberal capitalist economic system (the market system) throughout the world.

In this respect, Indonesia's transformation into a democratic country has added a new rationale for the U.S. to pay greater attention to Indonesia, being the world's fourth largest democracy and a developing nation with a Muslim majority.

As such, Indonesia's success as a democracy will become a model of political development for large developing nations in the future.

In the first six months of his term, President Abdurrahman Wahid has become a model of an Islamic leader who exercises his influence for bringing about moderation and tolerance in religious affairs. Therefore, he has become very popular in the U.S.

However, that enthusiasm has gradually diminished among U.S. leaders because of the inability of the Indonesian government, and the President in particular, to deliver effective and good government and governance.

The economic crisis has limited Indonesia's ability to exert influence and deliver on her leadership in ASEAN, which taken as a whole is also in crisis. This has reduced ASEAN's influence and role in the various regional institutions it had earlier initiated, supported and led, such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and the ASEAN Regional Forum. In turn, this has also reduced Indonesia's influence in the region, and therefore it has become less important for the U.S.

On the other hand, due to the economic crisis Indonesia will depend much more on the U.S., which as the only remaining superpower is critically important for continued overseas development aid and foreign direct investment flows into Indonesia, because of her influence on other developed nations, international financial institutions and international businesses.

The bottom line is that now Indonesia needs the U.S. more than before, especially in regard to achieving successful economic restructuring, a prerequisite to sustained economic recovery and to achieving political stability.

Strategically speaking, the U.S. presence in East Asia is also very important. This presence in the region ensures a balance of forces that will help maintain regional peace and stability. This has contributed to the economic dynamism of East Asia over the last 30 years and provides another good reason for maintaining a healthy bilateral relationship with the U.S.

But this is not happening now because some of our officials and representatives, as well as other leaders, behave as if we don't need the U.S. at all. Even worse, there is the belief that the U.S. is trying to subvert Indonesia in order to prevent her from becoming a great nation. That is a very mistaken notion and should be corrected soon before more damage is done to the relationship and to Indonesia.

Ambassador Gelbard is not a specialist on East Asia or Indonesia, but he is well meaning and his heart is in the right place for supporting Indonesia.

His direct ways and his tendency to air some of his opinions and frustrations in public, could sometimes create a problem. But if Indonesians consider bilateral U.S.-Indonesia relations to be critically important for Indonesia, than we should be able to overcome those personal idiosyncrasies and educate the Ambassador about our more indirect and personal ways.

We will only hurt the relationship if we act immaturely, such as demanding that the envoy be declared persona non grata, and demonstrate in front of the Embassy every time he says something that might be considered as an insult, however true this might be.

On some specific issues, such as the matter of the Independent Power Producers when he became too overbearing and biased, we should let him know as a friend that he needs to change his attitude and his rhetoric. He can make mistakes as we too can make mistakes. As a friend we should be able to overcome this in a civilized way. And since we are not a banana republic, we must be able to do that.

It should be recognized that the problem of Palestine versus Israel has complicated the bilateral relationship with the U.S., because the U.S. is seen as defending Israel at all costs.

In particular, the excessive use of force by Israel over the last month has created much revulsion among the Indonesian population, particularly the Muslim community, and has created a very strong emotional reaction which has also been targeted at the U.S..

Indonesian public opinion has always been pro-Palestinian because they are defending their right of self-determination and because they are the underdogs.

This has not been the concern of the Muslim community alone. While this complication is a fact, it should be decoupled from our bilateral relations with the U.S.. How this can be done will depend very much on the Indonesian leaders and on the policies of the U.S. government concerning the Palestine question, which should be more evenhanded.

In any case, the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Indonesia is of critical importance to Indonesia, and it should be improved by establishing a clear view of its objectives and the ways in which these may be achieved. This is not only a concern of the government and legislature, but also of the public and civil society organizations in particular.

Therefore, a public discourse on the future relations between the U.S. and Indonesia should be started in an extensive and responsible way through the media as well as through public education activities such as conferences, seminars and lectures.

The writer is Chairman of Supervisory Board of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.