Christopher S. Bond
Events over the last year — from young protesters overthrowing dictatorial governments in the Middle East to the devastating natural and nuclear disaster in Japan and the floods in Thailand and the Philippines — make it impossible to not recognize that we are living in an ever-increasingly interdependent world. Unfortunately, once the television crews leave the scene, too often American interest quickly leaves as well.
America’s Attention Deficit Disorder with Southeast Asia, as I have dubbed it, has produced unfortunate results. Few people in the US Congress, not to mention the everyday Americans in communities across the country, could point to Indonesia on the map before the devastating tsunami in 2004.
However, there was a tremendous effort of assistance and cooperation among US military, government and nonprofit organizations to help the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the international community respond to this cataclysmic humanitarian crisis. But after the immediate crisis waned, so too did America’s engagement with Indonesia, and with much of the region.
While the United States’ ADD with Southeast Asia has primarily been benign, the consequences have at times been devastating. For instance, since the terrible abuses committed by the TNI in East Timor, the United States has imposed on-again, off-again restrictions on our relations with the Indonesian Military, including the still-imposed “lethal” weapons sales ban.
Despite important reforms the military made in training and doctrine to instill respect for human rights, civilian control and military professionalism, US policies largely went unchanged. The most heartbreaking result of this policy I saw firsthand when I was in Banda Acheh following the devastating tsunami. Because of the military restrictions, Indonesia was denied the ability to purchase necessary spare parts for its C-130 fleet, leaving its fleet of 24 planes largely inoperable and slowing the arrival of aid.
In today’s fast-paced and interconnected world, this American ADD is outdated, and, when it comes to Southeast Asia, economically unwise. After all, Asean is America’s fifth largest overseas market.
Indonesia in particular is key to America’s economic future; with 240 million people, Indonesia has the largest economy in Southeast Asia, one of the fastest growing economies globally and is located along the world’s major trade routes. Indonesia is also key to the US security future, playing a balancing role to the growing dominance of China and acting as a key ally in combating terrorists.
Despite the compelling case that Indonesia and Southeast Asia as a whole presents to the United States, American ADD has prevented US government leaders from acting on free trade agreements, easing punitive policies that discourage US investment in the region and supporting the necessary level of investment in smart-power programs like the Peace Corps and humanitarian and development assistance initiatives.
President Barack Obama and his administration have taken important steps to counter this lack of focus on Southeast Asia, appointing the first US ambassador to Asean, joining the East Asian Summit, participating in regional forums and signing the Asean Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, to name a few. While this administration undoubtedly has strengthened America’s relationship with Indonesia and the region, much more must be done.
Recently I served as a member of the US-Asean Strategy Commission organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Our report made the case that the United States can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines in engaging Southeast Asia. We also laid out critical recommendations to help American policy makers develop a long-term strategy to deal with the region.
These recommendations include actions that would strongly signal that the United States is serious about being a key player on trade and investment, such as declaring our intention to negotiate a US-Asean FTA.
Equally important, our commission advised the United States to act now to increase people-to-people ties between our countries, including educational exchanges. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is himself an example of these ties, having completed his MBA at Webster University in St. Louis.
Of course, it is far easier to offer recommendations than to put them into action. Which is why this week, I am leading a trade delegation from my home state of Missouri in America’s heartland to Indonesia. In partnership with the St. Louis World Trade Center, this trade and investment delegation is made up of representatives from small, medium and large businesses as well as universities.
Our delegation will be visiting Jakarta, Bogor, Bandung and Surabaya where we will meet with government and business leaders to explore mutually beneficial economic and commercial opportunities. There is much Missouri can offer Indonesia in the areas of food security, agribusiness, aerospace and advanced manufacturing.
The same is true of people-to-people ties. This week representatives from some of Missouri’s top universities will meet with Indonesian education officials to discuss building an even deeper partnership among schools in both our countries. Also, since 2004 Missouri’s second largest city, St. Louis, has had a Sister Cities’ relationship with Bogor, which we will celebrate and strengthen at a signing ceremony with Mayor Diani Budiarto.
There are a number of global challenges on the horizon that we must all come to the table to deal with. But too often, the common enemies of ignorance and intolerance result in gridlock. Increasing people-to-people interaction is one of the best solutions to addressing this challenge. And people-to-people ties will help educate Americans about the importance of Indonesia and help break through our Attention Deficit Disorder.
The more we take the time to work together, learn from each other and exchange ideas, we quickly learn how much we have in common. We all want to ensure a better life for our children, to worship and practice our religion in peace, and provide for the safety and well-being of our families. With our shared democratic values of peace, tolerance and pluralism, Indonesia and the United States are natural partners in creating that hopeful future.
Christopher S. Bond is a former US senator from Missouri.