Date: 08-02-2002

HONOLULU (Aug. 2) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to Jakarta, albeit a one-day whirlwind, has brought the much-needed balm of personal diplomacy to a delicate and, in recent months, edgy relationship between the two governments, an East-West Center specialist on Indonesia said.

"The visit comes after nine months of misread signals and missed cues, underlining the importance of regular face-to-face, high-level dialogue between the United States and the world's largest Muslim country," Richard Baker said.

A week after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Sukarnoputri Megawati visited President George Bush in the White House and publicly declared her condemnation of terrorism. On her return to Jakarta, however, she faced mixed views within her own government as well as strident anti-American agitation from radical voices in the Islamic community. When the United States attacked Afghanistan, Megawati sought political shelter in a broad statement opposing the use of force for any purpose in interstate relations. Baker noted that this apparent shift led Bush to pass up an opportunity, reportedly sought by Megawati, for a further meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) gathering in Shanghai in November.

Early this year U.S. news reports quoted unnamed officials saying Indonesia might be the next target for U.S. counter-terrorism action, predictably offending staunch Indonesian nationalists. Disclaimers by senior U.S. officials such as Deputy Defense Secretary and former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Paul Wolfowitz, just as predictably, could not undo the damage, Baker said.

"Secretary Powell is wisely taking the time to meet with some of Indonesia's top Islamic leaders, extending the discussion directly into this major Indonesian community," Baker said. "These meetings will not resolve all the differences but can keep them from overshadowing the more important areas of agreement and common interests."

The timing of Powell's visit is also auspicious, Baker noted. He arrived directly from meetings with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) counterparts in Brunei and the signing of a U.S.-ASEAN anti-terrorism declaration. Also this week the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved anti-terrorism assistance and training for the Indonesian military, lifting some of the restrictions imposed against it due to human-rights concerns.

"Powell's meetings in Jakarta can help project a more accurate picture of the relationship between the two governments, of U.S support for Indonesia's territorial integrity, democratic consolidation and economic recovery," Baker said. "It can also demonstrate understanding of the country's complicated internal politics, and the quiet but growing cooperation between the two governments on terrorism and other problems."

Baker added that differences remain in the relationship, especially over the extent that Indonesia has brought accountability to its security establishment. "But in the context of the broader dialogue and of new joint-efforts, the differences and constraints on both sides can be put into perspective and be more effectively managed."

Richard Baker can be reached at 808-396-6021 or

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center