The ties that bind
This is probably not the best of times for Indonesia's relations with the United States, but before anyone says anything else that could further damage the current state of affairs, it might be worth relooking at just how important these ties are to the nation's interests. Americans have often been blamed for understating the strategic importance of Indonesia to their national interests, but many Indonesian politicians are now just as guilty, if not more so, in underestimating how crucial the United States is to Indonesia, especially now of all times.
Indonesia's economic recovery, as slow as it may be, would have been impossible without the direct and indirect role of the United States. The unprecedented export boom which Indonesia has seen this year -- about the only bright spot of the economy which is still struggling to come out of a deep recession -- has largely been at the courtesy of the American economy, which is experiencing its longest unimpeded period of growth. The United States in fact is rapidly becoming Indonesia's main trading partner, replacing a slot traditionally filled by Japan.
The United States has also played a pivotal albeit low-key role in pressuring the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to sustain their programs in Indonesia and help the nation out of its current economic predicament. The United States did not rank high on the list of countries which pledged US$5.3 billion in fresh aid to Indonesia in Tokyo this month, but that is because most of its assistance is channeled through multilateral organizations, including the IMF and the World Bank.
The United States has always been the largest source of foreign direct investments in Indonesia, when the oil and gas sector is included. No doubt American capital will be crucial once more if and when foreign investors start coming back to Indonesia, hopefully, in the not too distant future.
Important as they are, trade and economy are not the only sectors which have underpinned strong bilateral ties. Many elected politicians seem to have forgotten that last year's general election, billed Indonesia's first democratic polls in over 40 years, was largely possible because of the tremendous support from the international community, including in particular the United States. Indonesia will undoubtedly continue to count on its support as it marches toward democracy and a civil society.
In the cultural sector, Indonesia has also reaped benefits from having good relations with America. On education, for example, the United States remains the most popular destination for young Indonesian of the elite wanting to study abroad. Whether they are privately funded or studying on American scholarships, many of these students were given a reprieve by their colleges through fee waivers during the worst of the economic crisis in 1997/1998.
These, and others too numerous to list in this column, underpin the importance of the United States to Indonesia's foreign relations, to the point that it is one of its most important friends. Many politicians and officials, however, chose to ignore them as they engaged in anti-American rhetoric these past few weeks. Taking on the giant superpower may have bought them short-term popularity, but it comes not only at the expense of endangering Indonesia-American relations, but also ultimately the nation's short and long-term interests.
United States Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Gelbard may be too abrasive to Indonesia's liking, and he may have stepped out of line through some of his comments, such as the interview he gave to the Washington Times in August. United States' criticism, however, has so far been measured and targeted at specific groups and has avoided harming the overall relations. An embargo, for example, has been imposed on the sale of military spare parts for the Indonesian Military because of Indonesia's past military policy in East Timor.
But responses by Indonesian officials and politicians have been unnecessarily excessive. Accusations that Gelbard meddled in the recent appointments of top government and military officials, and of espionage, have not been proven. Politicians attacking the United States often claimed that they were defending the pride and honor of the nation, but more often than not, like the unwarranted accusations against the ambassador, they smacked of chip-on-the-shoulder nationalism.
The danger is that these anti-American sentiments could easily spin out of control and affect the broader relations, especially since they are fanned by government officials and politicians. But just remember, if relations are allowed to deteriorate any further, Indonesia and its people have far more to lose than the United States does.