What we could expect from Obama’s visit

Barring any unforeseen trouble ahead, US President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Indonesia and Australia in the second half of March.

For both President Obama and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), the visit will be a welcome diversion from domestic political headaches that currently grip both leaders.

Of course, this will also be a great photo opportunity for both Presidents. Obama will be able to show the folks back home that he is still the most popular president on the face of the Earth and still commands respect and admiration from a country with the highest Muslim population in the world.

Meanwhile, SBY will relish the international spotlight while showing off Indonesia as one of the most beautiful and important countries in the world.

The million-dollar question is what Indonesia should expect from President Obama’s visit.
The bad news is that Indonesia should not expect too much from this visit. Aside from reaffirming Indonesia as one of the US’s major trading and security partners and his personal visit to his childhood “kampung” in Menteng, it is very unlikely that Obama will bring anything major to the table.

With the US congress is in uproar thanks to his healthcare mess and the US economy just starting its slow rebound, Obama’s options are limited.

On the other hand, in light of Indonesia’s recent successes in tackling radical Muslims (e.g. Noordin M. Top), considering Indonesia’s willingness to help the US over the past several years, and not to mention Obama’s personal attachment to Indonesia, SBY needs to capitalize on this occasion to press the US on several important aspects, notably on the issue of trade, security and education.

Trade, of course, will always be one of the most important aspects of this visit. Aside of course, hoping to increase US investment in Indonesia, President Yudhoyono should also focus on trying to increase Indonesia’s exports to the US.

Facing the flood of cheap Chinese goods, thanks to the implementation of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, Indonesian manufacturers need to increase exports, especially on high-quality or highly specialized goods in order to survive.

Regardless of the economic crisis and high unemployment rate, the US remains one of the richest countries and one of the largest markets in the world.

Its economy has also improved far better than those in Europe. As a result, Indonesia needs to try to increase its market share in the US.

The second important aspect is the military aspect. While the US had lifted its arms embargo on Indonesia, Indonesia still faces difficulties in procuring more arms from the US due to cost, bureaucratic hassle and congressional hostility. Of course, it can be argued the Indonesian military needs to undergo structural reform first.

Still, the fact remains the Indonesian military is vastly under-equipped and needs more equipment and spare parts to defend the huge expanses of Indonesian territory.

As US forces are stretched thin due to commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and all over the world, the US needs a friendly Indonesia to maintain the stability of the region in the face of threats from a rising China and radical religious terrorists, not to mention criminal elements such as human traffickers or drug smugglers. It is only fair the US help Indonesia modernize and equip its military forces.

While the US Congress, especially the Democrats, are usually pretty hostile and critical toward the Indonesian military, Obama actually could persuade his Democrat party colleagues and more friendly Republican congressmen to back more military aid to Indonesia in order to improve regional security and stability.

The debate over the US policy on Afghanistan showed that Republicans were more than willing to support President Obama’s military buildup, so Obama just needs to convince his Democratic colleagues to support more military aid to Indonesia by arguing that it is in the interest of improving regional security.

The third important aspect is education, especially more opportunity for civilians and military officers to pursue higher education at American universities.

While the quality of Indonesian education is steadily improving, Indonesia still needs more capable civil and military scholars to help further improve its higher education institutions.

In addition, SBY should urge American universities to open branches in Indonesia, as they have in Singapore.

For the US, this is a win-win proposition, an increase in the number of Indonesian scholars studying there means that they will be immersed in American values and share them back in Indonesia when they return.

These scholars can help improve the image of the US and its reputation in Indonesia, which took major beatings under George W. Bush.

On military affairs, as Indonesian Army officers become more professional, they will help reform the Indonesian military and strengthen democracy in Indonesia.

In the end, while Indonesia should not expect much from Obama’s visit, SBY still needs to capitalize on it and push for more cooperation in trade, security and education.