By Singgih Nugroho
US President Barack Obama’s November visit to Bali in November 2011 to attend the 19th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia Summits was his second official visit to Indonesia in his role as president. In November 2010 he gave a speech at the University of Indonesia in which he praised the country for successfully reconciling Islam and democracy, as well as its ability to manage diversity democratically. This praise was undoubtedly welcomed by many. However, many Indonesians find these words at odds with recent US policy in the region and feel that more must be done to improve relations between the two countries.
In late November, before his arrival in Bali, Obama announced the deployment of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force of 2,500 in Darwin, Australia – a mere 800 kilometres away from Indonesia – for the first time since World War II.
This decision surprised and worried many Indonesians. While most analysts and politicians believe the move is related to the United States’ relationship with China, some Indonesians fear that the presence of US troops will create tensions and mistrust between the two countries. For many, a US military presence so close to their shore is at the very least seen as too close for comfort.
At the summit in Bali, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa commented on such concerns by stating, “What I would hate to see is if such developments were to provoke a reaction and counter-reaction precisely to create a vicious circle of tension and mistrust or distrust.”
Sadly this mistrust is already rising. Diplomats in Indonesia, the United States and Australia have all stated publicly that the deployment is not aimed to create further tensions in the region and is purely for humanitarian disaster-management purposes. However, this explanation has generally been met with disbelief in Indonesia, where analysts and observers continue to voice suspicions regarding the motives of the troop deployment.
This situation has had consequences at the grassroots level in Indonesia.
The US troop deployment feeds into the propaganda perpetuated by radical groups in Indonesian that the United States has imperialistic aims when it comes to Indonesia. This could in turn make it more difficult for Indonesian civil society to stand up against exclusive ideologies and promote greater pluralism domestically.
In the Asia Pacific region, many people see diplomatic and political means as being equally important to the end goals. Accordingly, most Indonesians share US interests in the region, but disapprove of using demonstrations of military might to achieve them.
Many Indonesians admire the US government system, business community and culture and have no issue with the American public in general. At the same time they disapprove of some elements of American foreign policy, especially those they see as imposing a double standard when it comes to upholding human rights on the one hand, and business and corporate policies on the other.
Opportunities to truly understand the United States and Americans are only experienced by a minority of Indonesians.
This gap could be overcome if both sides were more sensitive to each others’ values and frames of reference. Media and public figures on both sides could refrain from presenting half-baked and poorly informed opinions as fact. Diplomatic approaches between the two governments could encourage more direct cooperation between American and Indonesian citizens at several levels. These could take the form of government, educational and civil society exchanges that would allow Americans and Indonesians to share their experiences of everyday life and see one another with human faces that are kind, fair, friendly and considerate.
Scepticism and mistrust continue to fill the pages of Indonesian papers with regards to US actions in Darwin. But if leaders on both sides can use this as an opportunity to look at the US-Indonesian relationship more carefully, it could result in the building of new connections based on common interests and good will rather than suspicion or fear.
Singgih Nugroho is a researcher at PERCIK (The Institute for Social Research, Democracy and Social Justice) in Salatiga, Indonesia and a 2011 participant of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) on Pluralism and Democracy.