(Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives on Wednesday in Indonesia, her second stop on an Asian tour after Japan, that also takes her to South Korea and China, and one that is important symbolically.
It sends a message to Southeast Asia that, in Clinton’s first foreign trip since taking office, this part of the region is not being neglected, and that President Barack Obama hopes to improve U.S. ties with the Muslim world, given Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation.
Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, has Southeast Asia’s biggest economy and has been a frontline state in the U.S.-led “war on terror,” with considerable success in quashing violent militants after a series of deadly bombings.
Cooperation with the United States in the latter area — among other things Indonesia’s elite anti-terrorism unit got U.S. training — is something Washington wants to continue.
The United States is an important Indonesian trading partner, and has made major investments, especially in energy and mining, with several multinationals using it as a manufacturing base.
With its 85 percent Muslim population, Indonesia is a leader in the Islamic world.
WHAT IS THE STATE OF U.S.-INDONESIA RELATIONS?
Despite the problems former president George W. Bush’s administration had with much of the Muslim world, and the view that it neglected some parts of Asia, government-to-government relations with Indonesia were relatively good.
Bush visited the country during the presidencies of incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his predecessor Megawati Sukarnoputri, and Bush’s two secretaries of state were in Indonesia several times.
The U.S. navy provided highly visible aid after the devastating tsunami of 2004, and the U.S. gradually lifted various military aid and sales restrictions imposed over human rights issues.
However, the Indonesian government recognized the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and then of Iraq, and like most Muslim nations considers Washington far too inclined to favor Israel — which Jakarta does not recognize — in Middle East policy.
In those regards, the government reflects widespread attitudes among the Indonesian public, and large anti-American demonstrations over these and other issues are not uncommon.
One unique plus for the Obama Administration in Indonesia is that the U.S. president spent several years there as a child. His mother’s second husband was an Indonesian and he attended an Indonesian government school in an elite Jakarta neighborhood.
Add the Islamic links of Obama’s family on the paternal side and it makes Obama an even more popular figure in Indonesia than he is in much of the rest of the world, with many Indonesians regarding him as a virtual native son, who apparently even spoke a few words of Indonesian to Yudhoyono in a phone conversation.
Aside from encouraging Indonesia to keep up efforts against militants, Clinton may express concern about the growing political influence of radical Islam.
Indonesia recognizes several religions other than Islam and most of its Muslims are moderate, but an increasingly vocal hardline minority is undermining a tradition of tolerance, and some parts of Indonesia have adopted Islamic law.
Indonesia may ask for more economic and military aid, but despite the lifting of U.S. restrictions on military sales, Jakarta has gone elsewhere for some major purchases — like to Russia for jet fighters.
Each government is likely to urge the other to keep its economy open toward imports, even as they come under domestic pressure to be more protectionist due to the economic crisis.
The United States is Indonesia’s second-biggest export destination. Non-energy exports to the United States were $12.5 billion in 2008 and two-way trade $20.2 billion, but Jakarta is concerned over a slide in exports of key commodities such as palm oil, rubber and nickel to developed economies.
A number of major U.S. resource and manufacturing firms operate in Indonesia. Jakarta is keen to get more investment while Washington would like an end to what it sees as judicial and bureaucratic bias favoring Indonesian firms, and widespread corruption that distorts the economic playing field.
Editing by Sara Webb