Indonesia says understands Obama trip delay

JAKARTA Fri Mar 19, 2010 4:14am EDT

Supporters of President Barack Obama gather for a party to welcome him at Fabulous Bellagio Mall in Jakarta March 17, 2010. The words on the T-shirts read: ''Welcome''. REUTERS/Crack Palinggi

Supporters of President Barack Obama gather for a party to welcome him at Fabulous Bellagio Mall in Jakarta March 17, 2010. The words on the T-shirts read: ''Welcome''.

Credit: Reuters/Crack Palinggi

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia understands the reason for President Barack Obama's last-minute cancellation of his visit to Jakarta and Bali, officials in the Southeast Asian nation said on Friday. But ordinary Indonesians expressed disappointment that Obama would not be returning to the place where he lived as a child.

Obama scrapped his plan to visit Indonesia and Australia on Thursday, days before the start of his Asia-Pacific trip, in order to stay in Washington and give a final push for a U.S. healthcare overhaul. The visit will be postponed until June.

"Of course we have made maximum preparations ahead of the visit, but that does not mean we should be disappointed by the delay," presidential spokesman Julian Pasha told Reuters.

"The delay of President Obama's visit to Indonesia is related to urgent internal matters, so we understand. Health reform has become a hot issue in the U.S."

The rare cancellation of a presidential trip abroad underscored how Obama's political challenges at home have begun complicating his activity overseas, stirring debate on whether he may have to scale back some foreign policy goals.

Obama had intended to use the March 21-26 trip, his first foreign travel this year, to deepen U.S. ties in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of rising Chinese influence.

Obama's first stop was to have been in the U.S. territory of Guam, a hub of American military power in the Pacific, to underline Washington's security commitment in the region.

Then he was headed to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, where he spent four years as a child and where he was to try to build on his outreach to Muslim world.

After that, he was to have visited Australia, a linchpin U.S. friend in the Pacific and key military ally in Afghanistan.

FORMER SCHOOL

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said that it would better for Obama to visit when the domestic setting for him was more settled.

"We don't want him to be in Jakarta when his mind is elsewhere," Natalegawa told a media briefing.

The minister said that Jakarta would consult with Washington over whether several agreements, including one on a comprehensive partnership, would be signed now or delayed until June.

Indonesian officials had also hoped that Obama's visit would help boost U.S. investment in Southeast Asia's biggest economy.

Obama is generally popular in Indonesia given his early ties to the country and there was disappointment over the delay.

"Of course I am disappointed but if he hasn't canceled it, if he is just delaying it, then I am happy. As long as he is still coming," said 9-year-old Rizki Rivaldi Riadi, who attends the school Obama went to in the smart Menteng neighborhood.

Obama had already put off his departure by three days before the cancellation, leaving Indonesian officials scrambling to re-organize his itinerary.

Firi, a mother of one of the students at Menteng 01 state primary school, said the children had been hoping for a visit by the school's former pupil.

"It is sad, because the kids had hoped that he would come, they have prepared everything to welcome him," said Firi.

Harry Silalahi, a political analyst at the Center for Strategic and International studies in Jakarta, said expectations in Indonesia had been too high for the trip.

"People have been overly sentimental and nostalgic about his visit," said Silalahi. (Additional reporting by Heru Asprihanto, Priscilla Sabrina and Tommy Ardiansyah; Editing by Ed Davies and Alex Richardson)