An Indonesian visitor under fire

When international leaders come to the White House, a military band often plays ruffles and flourishes and their country’s national anthem. For Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, a more appropriate tune would have been The Platters’ classic, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

The Indonesian leader’s first visit to the U.S. since his election last year was supposed to be highlighted by two big announcements: that Indonesia would upgrade its strategic partnership with the U.S. (to the same level it has had with China) and its readiness to join the next round of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that now involves the U.S. and 11 other nations.

Instead, soon after Widodo (popularly know in his country as Jokowi) left his Monday White House meeting with President Obama, word came out that he would be cutting short his American visit to return home to deal with a massive carbon haze that has enveloped much of Southeast Asia from forest and peat bog fires in his country. From Singapore to southern Thailand, air quality levels have quadrupled internationally acceptable levels and made urban vistas resemble those of Beijing in winter.

The fires and haze are an annual occurrence from tree clearing and palm oil production, long deplored by environmentalists and made far worse this year by an El Nino drought. Some officials have estimated the fires and haze will not be contained until the November rainy season. Murray Hiebert, a veteran journalist and analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said one effective deterrent would be an international boycott of illegal palm oil sales.

But as Widodo goes home to personally oversee the crisis that has spilled as many emissions in a month as the United States produces each day, American officials and analysts try to look beyond the haze to see if political and economic relationships have strengthened between Jakarta and Washington.

The president offered some hints at a Wednesday morning appearance at the Brookings Institution. The one-time store owner and mayor who vaulted past Indonesia’s governing establishment to win his office, appeared relaxed and spoke in English, though translation devices had been presented to the overflow audience.

In his talk, Widodo stressed his economic reform proposals and his efforts to make the country more open to international investment. His power point presentation even included pictures of Jakarta’s horrendous traffic jams that result in international visitors being able to schedule at most three meetings a day, the rest of their time being spent sitting in traffic. According to trade analyst Nigel Cory, Indonesia ranks 114th on the World Bank’s ranking of ability to do business. By contrast Malaysia is 18th.

Other analysts at the session noted that Vietnam, considered the least business-ready of the TPP nations, has far fewer restrictions on foreign business and products than Indonesia.

On the political front, the president again stressed that China should negotiate a Code of Conduct for the maritime boundary disputes with the regional group, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and deplored efforts to turn them into strategic contests. China has consistently rejected that approach and insists on dealing with nations like the Philippines and Vietnam on a one-to-one basis. Analyst Donald Emerson of the Pacific Forum has labelled Indonesia’s efforts “a naive hope.”

Indonesia’s vast collection of islands and archipelagos comprise 33,000 miles of coastline and its eastern Economic Exclusion Zone crosses waters that China claims as its so-called 9-dash line.

To his American audience, Widodo also stressed that for his predominantly Muslim nation of 255 million (the world’s fourth largest country), Islam is compatible both with progress and democracy. His election was the fourth since the end of military rule in 1998. But his poll ratings have slumped in the year since as he confronts a parliament controlled by opposition parties and an array of vested business interests.

Even though Widodo’s trip to Washington during the smog crisis drew criticism at home, one analyst said he had no choice but to go ahead. He needed the photo opportunity in the White House that would symbolically place him in the same league of recent Asian visitors, the presidents of China and South Korea. Now that he has achieved that milestone, Widodo returns home to literally burning crises.