Indonesia back on the world stage (Michael Vatikiotis, 3/30/06, Asia Times)

Welcome to the brave new world of Indonesian foreign policy. The international community has only just started to focus on Indonesia’s successful democratic transition, the economy is only just recovering from nearly a decade of malaise and crisis, and the business community is waiting with genuine expectation for the government’s “war on corruption” to be won. But President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is an impatient man – he wants Indonesia to make its mark on the world now.

“We are the fourth-most-populous nation in the world. We are home to the world’s largest Muslim population. We are the world’s third-largest democracy. We are also a country where democracy, Islam and modernity go hand in hand,” Yudhoyono declared last May in his first major foreign-policy speech. “And our heart is always with the developing world, to which we belong. These are the things that define who we are and what we do in the community of nations.”

In fact, what Yudhoyono aims to do is pretty ambitious. Bringing democracy to Myanmar comes high up the list. So, too, does helping Palestinians win their statehood from Israel. Then there is North Korea: the president wants to visit Pyongyang and has already sent an envoy to the hermit state to try to restart stalled security talks between the two Koreas. And if dealing with one end of the “axis of evil” isn’t risky enough, Indonesia has also flagged its intention to help reconcile Iran with the West, exemplified by Wirajuda’s visit to Tehran last month, and thereafter by at least two high-level visits by Iranian officials to Jakarta.

Talk to many Indonesians about Yudhoyono’s foreign-policy objectives and they will argue that the country simply isn’t ready to take on the world. There are too many priorities at home: sorting out the economy, combating corruption, resolving internal conflicts and curbing Islamic militancy, to name just a few. Realists and pragmatists such as former foreign minister Ali Alatas argue that Indonesia is weak and has no clout in the international community. “Who would listen?” Alatas asks, though he recently served as a special envoy to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Fortunately for Yudhoyono, the United States is listening. Indonesia’s democratic and moderate Islamic credentials appeal to Washington, which is also on the lookout for a strategic counterbalance to China in the region.

“Your challenge now is to expand the peace, the opportunity and the freedom that we see in much of Southeast Asia to all of Southeast Asia,” Rice said in a speech to an Indonesian international-relations forum during her mid-March visit to Jakarta. “The United States is eager to work with ASEAN through our new enhanced partnership, and we look to Indonesia … to play a leadership role in Southeast Asia and in the dynamic changing East Asia.”

Indonesia has clout precisely because they’re joining the Axis of Good.

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