Indonesian leaders and academics gathered today in Jakarta to discuss how U.S. President Barack Obama's upcoming visit could help build better bilateral relations in areas such as education, climate change and trade.
Relations between the United States and Indonesia have seen highs and lows, over the years, but with the election of President Obama - who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia - leaders here saw a new opportunity to re-evaluate their relationship with the United States and work toward building better cooperation.
Dino Patti Djalal, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's special advisor on international affairs, says the current relationship is not based on sentiments, but national interests and that the United States needs to work toward achieving its own goals, while also respecting Indonesian sovereignty.
"In our relationship, we are very proud that we are an independent nation," he said. "We cannot have an alliance with anybody, not the United States, not our neighbors. So we have always been independent and that is part of our diplomatic culture and national psyche and, as we get on with this relationship, this diplomatic partnership it is important for America to respect that."
The U.S. image in Indonesia has taken a beating, in the past decade, after the United States withdrew investments in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis and slapped sanctions on weapons sales to the Indonesian military, because of alleged human rights abuses.
With the United States increasingly looking to China, Dino says Indonesia has developed a bit of a "middle-power" complex. However, he sees Obama's visit as an opportunity to put old issues in the past and work on building a balanced exchange.
"As we get on with America, the superpower, sometimes some people get discomforted by it, sometimes even get defensive about it. But we need to recognize that the United States is a superpower and the relationship between Indonesia and the United States has to evolve in such a way that we both are there as equal partners," he said.
Sensitive issues remain, particularly in the area of democracy building. But Gerald Hyman, at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the United States should allow Indonesia to serve as an example to other nations by using its experience as a developing democracy.
"Why shouldn't Indonesians help us build democracies in Tunisia or in Tanzania or in Nicaragua? Why is that an American project or a European project? Why isn't that an Indonesian project as well? Why isn't that a democracy project for those of us who define ourselves as democrats?" he said.
Although politics factored in to many of Tuesday's discussions, business development, educational exchanges and climate change cooperation were also on the table. Rachmad Witoelar, executive chairman of the Indonesian Council on Climate Change, says that, with the U.S. Congress at loggerheads on how to cut carbon emissions, Mr. Obama needs to change the perception that the United States is not serious about environmental issues.
"He has to tell us that the U.S. population cares about climate change, because judging from the international news, he is being prevented from giving way to the law," said Rachmad Witoelar.
The conference ended by highlighting the need for better understanding between two countries that have their own uniquenesses but also many commonalities. That requires that both sides define how they see their role in the world and, with the United States showing some uncertainty about its interests in Southeast Asia, many of the leaders present said it is up to Indonesia to pave the way.