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Off the Itinerary

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During his trip to Asia this month, Barack Obama is visiting China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. All four are critical to US policy in the region – three Northeast Asian economic powerhouses and Singapore, which has the closest relationship toWashington of any country in Southeast Asia. And yet Obama is skipping the largest nation in Southeast Asia, Indonesia.

That’s a mistake. The White House wants to demonstrate that, after eight years of the Bush administration ignoring Southeast Asia, Washington is once again focusing on the region. On Capitol Hill, too, lawmakers seem eager to establish that the US is not willing simply to cede Southeast Asia to China, which has made enormous gains in the region while America was distracted. Yet to bypass Indonesia sends the opposite message – particularly when Indonesia’s president, the popular Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has made clear he wants to strengthen ties to the US.

Indonesia could have been a platform not only for a speech on re-engaging with Southeast Asia but also for one of Obama’s talks, like those he gave in Turkey and Egypt, about America’s new outreach to the Muslim world. After all, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation, and, despite a rise in political Islam during the early post-Suharto period, hardcore Islamic parties saw their share of the vote drop in the most recent national election. A high-profile speech in Indonesia would have allowed Obama to acknowledge that, while the Middle East is important to American policy, more than half the world’s Muslims are not Arabs.

What’s more, Indonesia’s recent turn to secular democracy stands as a dramatic counter-example to Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and Malaysia, which have all, in recent years, headed towards more authoritarian rule. Surely the White House, under fire for its apparent wilful ignorance of human rights in places like Sudan and China, should want to celebrate Indonesia’s steps forward on this account.

To be sure, the White House has said that the president wants to make a longer, more comprehensive trip to Indonesia, where he lived as a child, and so he may visit next year, taking his family with him. But the Indonesian officials I spoke with were still disappointed. If Obama wants to encourage democracy in Southeast Asia, snubbing the region’s most democratic country makes no sense at all.

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