Given its growing economy, increasing regional clout, and President Barack Obama’s personal connections to the country, Indonesia might have seemed like an ideal target for outreach by the administration. The only problem is that the president seems to have an exceptionally hard time getting there. In fact, planned Obama trips to Indonesia tends to be a pretty good indicators that a major domestic political crisis is imminent.
In March, 2010, Obama postponed a trip to Indonesia and Australia for a few days, and then a few months during the final push for passage of the Affordable Care Act. That June, he postponed it again during the BP oil spill. When he did finally make it to Indonesia in November, he had to cut his trip short because of fears of ash from the eruption of Mount Merapi.
A November 2011 trip to the ASEAN Summit in Bali was less eventful, but now it seems the Indonesia curse has struck again, with Obama canceling plans to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Bali and the ASEAN summit in Brunei next week, due to the government shutdown. Planned stops in Malaysia and the Philippines were canceled earlier this week.
Joking aside, Obama’s difficulty in finding time to visit Indonesia highlights one of the problems with the administration’s stated plan to shift the focus of U.S. foreign policy from the Middle East to Asia – the so-called “pivot.” The White House clearly cares about deepening economic relationships in Asia – negotiations over the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement will dominate the Bali talks, where the U.S. will now be represented by Secretary of State John Kerry – as well as countering growing Chinese influence in the region.
But unlike the Middle East, things tend not be blowing up on a daily basis in East Asia. U.S. priorities in the region are on a longer timescale, and as such, tend to be pushed to the side when there are more immediate matters to deal with. In the long-run, this is probably good news for Beijing.
Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.
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