After hearing ad nausea from the Administration that America is back in Asia after a presumed absence under eight years of the Bush Administration, now comes the caveat. President Obama will cancel his upcoming trip to Guam, Indonesia and Australia – in the interest of salvaging his near singular preoccupation – health care reform. That didn’t take long. (Now, the trip is officially “postponed”. But this being the third time it has happened, the hosts certainly shouldn’t count on rescheduling. If it were a dinner invitation, such a guest would certainly be struck from future lists.)
The visit was a big deal for Guam. Guam is part of America, a place that most vividly demonstrates America’s “resident status” in the Pacific. It bulges with American military; it is also at the center of a dispute between the US and Japan over the transfer of American forces on Okinawa. But Guam is used to being overlooked.
The Australians will also deal with it. The US-Australian alliance is a mature one. They can always be counted on to serve at the side of freedom. Do the Americans take their friendship for granted? Absolutely. But sometimes that’s what friends are for. Sometimes. The big downside to the Australia miss involves America’s highest priority – Afghanistan. The visit was an opportunity for Obama to secure Australian command in place of the departing Dutch in Oruzgan Province, and potentially an augmentation of their troop numbers there. It was also an opportunity for Obama and Prime Minister Rudd to establish a personal rapport that could be important to American interests in Asia – but also globally.
The Australians could be forgiven some coolness to American needs in Afghanistan in response to the President’s cancellation. I mean, if the President of the United States can’t pull himself away from Washington long enough to personally request they stretch themselves in Afghanistan, I don’t know how he can ask Prime Minister Rudd to stick his own neck out politically. But, you know, the Australians will probably do the right thing anyway. That’s just the way they are.
That leaves us with Indonesia. The benefits of the Indonesia visit are not as immediately tangible as they are in Australia. The President’s trip was an opportunity to begin a “comprehensive partnership” with Indonesia, a challenging, long-term undertaking to be sure, but one well worth the investment. Indonesia’s geographic position alone, between the Indian and Pacific oceans and astride straits through which more than half of world trade and energy supplies to Northeast Asia (China, Japan, Korea) flows make it critical to American interests. So does its initiative in successfully fighting back terrorists. Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world. It is the giant of Southeast Asia, representing the predominance of power in the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It’s a full fledged, if still developing, democracy, the freest in Southeast Asia. So much more than a “Muslim country,” Indonesia is, indeed, a country made up mostly of Muslims, an example to other Muslim communities of the coexistence of Islam and political liberty.
Indonesia is not Australia. Our relationship with newly democratic Indonesia is barely out of the blocks. As noted above, this is the third time President Obama has “postponed” on Indonesia. Originally, he was to have visited during his November 2009 swing through Asia. The mistake there was nurturing Indonesian expectations. It was always the case that if the President could only visit three countries, they would naturally be Japan, South Korea, and China. The President and his staff should have known that. (His stop in Singapore was the pretext for the trip – the annual meeting of APEC. Obama nicely leveraged that stop to broader American geopolitical symbolism by meeting with the 10 ASEAN heads of state/government in the first ever ASEAN Summit.)
The new era of American engagement in Southeast Asia now seems so far away. Already burdened by a lack of a trade policy – the substantive heart of Southeast Asia – now leaders there cannot even count on the physical presence of the American President.
If you think for a moment that the Indonesians will understand, think again. The President cancelling on them – and on President Yudhoyono (SBY) in particular – is a major insult. Not everyone in Indonesia was happy about President Obama coming – particularly the very small but determined band of Indonesian Islamists still bent on overturning Indonesia’s democratic constitution. They will now claim victory and snicker at SBY’s naiveté. Similar story elsewhere in the region. The envy among the other countries in Southeast Asia, particularly among America’s formal treaty allies in the Philippines and Thailand, was palpable. SBY’s face will be a little redder next he sees his friends there. But hey, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will be visiting Indonesia next month. Maybe in the interest of “strategic reassurance”, Wen can represent U.S. interests…
So the “America’s back” charade has been punctured. It’s an excellent time to puncture another: President Obama as “America’s first Asia Pacific President.” Let’s be clear. The President’s (self-declared) claim to this title rests on his residence in Jakarta between the ages of 6 and 10. That, and his years growing up in Hawaii (actually still part of the United States). President Obama has thus far demonstrated a remarkably tin ear for American leadership in Asia – befitting his limited, albeit much hyped, connection to the region. American Presidents do not bow to the Emperor of Japan. They don’t kowtow to or plead with Chinese Communists. And when they make promises to new friends like we’re seeking in Indonesia, they keep them. All the references to Obama’s boyhood in Indonesia, his love of Indonesian meatball soup, and the rumors of his fluency in Indonesian language mean nothing if he can’t keep his word. How do they trust him on the big things if they can’t trust him on the small things? That question is more than protocol; it is a matter of American strategic interest.