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What has 17,000 islands & maybe one big bridge?

November 17, 2012 12:10 am


Are you sure this is a Muslim country? No one would mistake Indonesia for Saudi Arabia.

LOS ANGELES--Within days, President Obama is set to visit Southeast Asia--a very good thing. The region is becoming more significant by the month. U.S. policy is said to be "pivoting" to Asia after decades of preoccupation with Europe. This pivotal moment arrives not a moment too soon.

Yet I am slightly sad the president will grace only three countries. Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia get the president's blessing, deservedly--but not the always-troubled Philippines or strategically vital Indonesia, much less tiny, brilliant Singapore. Taken together, the region's population comes in at about 600 million, half of which is Muslim. ASEAN, its lead regional agency, is along with NATO one of the world's leading multilateral organizations.

America especially needs extra focus on Indonesia, ASEAN's lead member, where Obama once lived. This country's population of about 245 million makes it the fourth largest on Earth, and since about 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, it is the country with the largest Islamic population anywhere.

We need to keep repeating that last fact. Not too long ago, Jakarta was a crossroads in America's anti-communist crusade in Asia, but when the Iron Curtain fell, so did Washington's interest in the Indonesia.

Proud Indonesians did well enough going it alone. The country suffered shock after shock of bloody terrorist attack and recovered; it practically tore itself apart economically during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s--and again recovered. It now practices a rough-functioning democracy that offers real promise. Today Indonesia is on its feet, with a forward-moving economy, a president ensconced in his second term, and a future markedly more hopeful than it ever before.

What's more, this former Dutch colonial archipelago of 17,000 islands that is home to more people than Russia is a constitutional secular democracy, even with its deep Muslim culture. Washington needs to note this more often. After all, economics aside, the U.S. faces two huge global issues. One is how to properly balance its relationship with China. The other is harder: how to handle its roiling relationship with the Islamic world. Is that doable?

So far we seem to be having somewhat better luck with China than Islam. Many sectors in China have every reason to want a relatively calm and coordinated relationship with the U.S. By contrast, too many sectors of the Islamic world have huge issues with us. So if Obama were to prioritize any one foreign-policy goal (outside global economics), it should be to advance our connections and level of trust with the Muslim world.

We cannot do this alone; we are not that good at it. The 9/11 attacks and George W. Bush's subsequent broad-brush crusade against 'terror' prove that. We lack a sufficient cultural-religious feel, and we lack credibility. We need a strong ally. I propose that Indonesia become that special ally.

Wary of China, though not antagonistic, and conversant with Islam, though anything but "radical," it can bridge America to the Middle East from Asia, when heretofore our sole point of entry has been via Europe. Jakarta represents a secular state that practices a sensible, social Islam, while cracking down with increasing determination on the violent strains.

Indonesia is a huge untapped geopolitical and diplomatic resource. I would have scant hope of the U.S. sensing this without Obama. But biography can be destiny. Our president has a particular feel for this area of the world. He is not tone-deaf to Islam. And he may think we have tilted too warmly toward Beijing.

As a veteran political analyst put it in a survey of post-election U.S. foreign-policy directions, "The president's Asia lies not on the wind-swept ramparts of the Great Wall of China but in the tropical swelter of Singapore and Indonesia. He identifies more with the languid rhythms of Jakarta, aides say, than with the cracking energy of Shanghai."

Indonesia is of course mostly caught up in its myriad domestic concerns. It might feel that it is in no position to push itself diplomatically. But that view would be shortsighted. Jakarta could contribute much to global peace and stability with better, more audacious diplomacy.

The fourth most populous nation in the world can help the third most populous in ways not so far tried. But the U.S. must listen to this special ally with humility and appreciation. In this way, the well-intentioned "pivot" to Asia won't turn into yet another ungainly foreign-policy divot.

Tom Plate teaches Asian and Pacific studies at Loyola Marymount University. His latest book is "Conversations With Ban Ki-moon: The View From the Top."

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