Obama's Indonesia Visit

US President Barack Obama is scheduled to arrive in Jakarta early next month, but beyond the media's fixation on the return of Indonesia's most famous prodigal son and the ceremony it entails, there should be no mistaking the fact that a serious mission is afoot.

Obama's visit reflects his administration's determination to establish a solid footing and greater influence in the world's most dynamic region. Obama is acutely aware that his predecessor was lax and delinquent in his Asia policy, and Washington is extraordinarily keen to make up lost ground.

Foremost in Obama's mind is China. Asia's premier power is, and will more than likely remain, a major concern over the coming months and years. Beijing's unflinching territorial claims in the South China Sea, its intransigence over currency policy and ambitions to leverage its economic prowess to expand its sphere of influence are contentious issues that are sparking a heated debate inside Congress and the White House.

Yet, a consensus in Washington on how to interpret and respond to Beijing's flexing its muscles is lacking: While some policy makers view China primarily through the lens of a cold war mentality and believe that the Communist Party cannot be trusted, others are convinced that China is more of an opportunity than a threat and should be treated as a partner.

In either case, the Obama administration's ties with Indonesia figure prominently in the strategic calculus of its dealings with Asia.

Because Indonesia is Southeast Asia's largest country and sits astride strategic waterways, a closer US-Indonesia relationship would offer Washington an important counterweight against China.

Jakarta is willing to oblige: While Indonesia has benefited from warmer relations with Beijing over recent years, there is little doubt that its foreign policy establishment views the United States as a critical hedge against China risk.

As in the United States, many Indonesian policy makers would like to think positively about Beijing's grander designs, but there is also underlying discomfort and wariness about Asia's uberpower.

What most Indonesia watchers don't realize, however, is that the country's importance to Washington extends beyond the Pacific Ocean.

Although it is far removed from Arab nations in terms of distance and culture, Obama will use Indonesia as an ideal platform after his Cairo speech to talk about Islam.

Mecca is the spiritual center of Islam, yet Indonesia contains as many Muslims as the entire Arabian Peninsula.

Indonesia has its share of extremists and religious violence, but for the most part the country's Muslims are known for their moderation.

Obama must surely realize that with the steady stream of news on war and strident fundamentalism in the Middle East, Indonesia offers a refreshing contrast.

Wanting to fight back against a rising tide of Islamophobia in the West and reassert his vision of strengthening ties with Muslims, Obama can make a compelling argument from the presidential pulpit in Jakarta.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will find Obama's praise of his country's religious credentials as music to his ears.

Since he entered the palace in 2004, Yudhoyono has sought a more prominent spot for Indonesia in Middle Eastern affairs and interfaith relations.

Although Indonesia is no Turkey and cannot similarly serve as a potential bridge between the Western powers and the Middle East, Yudhoyono believes that the sheer size of his country's Muslim population and its “soft” reputation should be sufficient reason for him to earn a place at the table when it comes to sorting out conflicts between the West and the Islamic world.

The other major theme we can expect Obama to touch on during his visit is Indonesia's democratic consolidation.

Obama, like most US presidents before him, believes that the spreading of democratic values and free elections is a worthy goal of America's foreign policy.

Not long ago, Indonesia was the world's third-largest dictatorship.

Since Suharto fell from power in 1998, Indonesia has left behind its authoritarian past and has emerged as the world's third-largest democracy.

Since then, Indonesia has had four new presidents, and only India and the United States can boast of holding larger elections. If Obama wishes to showcase a sterling example of democratization, he could find none better than Indonesia.

Indonesia stands to benefit from Obama's visit because it is a unique opportunity to capture the attention of the international media in a positive light.

Rather than appearing in the news headlines – as it has so many times in the past – because of natural disasters or terrorist attacks, Obama standing shoulder to shoulder with Yudhoyono in a spirit of cooperation will provide a huge boost for Indonesia's reputation and facilitate a longer narrative about the country as an important Asian nation.

Indonesians are acutely aware that the rise of China and India has defined Western thinking about the region's future.

Asian countries much smaller than Indonesia – even the tiny city-state of Singapore – have evoked more recognition in the streets of New York and Brussels.

Given the vastness and riches here, Indonesians are perplexed that their country has failed to excite the Western imagination beyond the usual mention of Bali as an exotic holiday retreat.

Nonetheless, opinion polls have revealed that Indonesians have become much more confident in recent years about their immediate and long-term future as players on the global stage. Local elites are proud of their nation's new status in the prestigious club of G-20 economies.

And economists' predictions that Indonesia could emerge to become the world's seventh-largest economy before the middle of this century has not gone unnoticed by the international business community – over the past year, heads of multinational corporations that previously viewed Asia primarily through the lens of their China operations have started to consider the possibility of making Indonesia a larger part of their portfolios.

Business and politics aside, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Obama's upcoming visit is symbolic.

Obama coming back to the place where he spent part of his formative years as a child, and now the world's most powerful man, is a story that is not lost on Indonesians.

When Obama arrived in Jakarta for the first time in 1967 with his mother, Ann Dunham, and his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetopo, the country was very different from the one he will see when he steps down from Air Force One: Steeped in poverty and still recovering from the deep wounds of chaos and violence that marked the country in 1965, there seemed to be little hope in those years for Indonesia's future.

Yet Indonesia – like Obama – has proven that the audacity of hope is not, as cynics might contend, blind optimism.

Just as a chubby and unremarkable kid known as Barry by his Indonesian classmates would one day become the president of the United States, so Indonesia has emerged as one of Asia's success stories in the 21st century.

James Van Zorge is a political and business consultant in Jakarta. This first appeared in the Jakarta Globe, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.