WASHINGTON, D.C.: US President Barack Obama on Monday welcomes to the White House political upstart Joko Widodo — the first Indonesian president to visit in a decade and a leader his hosts hope can help catalyze the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Obama — who lived in Indonesia for nearly five years as a child — will hold Oval Office talks with a fellow 54-year-old who, also like him, swept to power as an outsider promising change.
Furniture-salesman-turned-president Widodo makes his maiden visit to Washington exactly a year after taking office.
In surviving even that long, he has defied skeptics who predicted he would quickly flounder in the oligarch-infested waters of Jakarta politics.
By welcoming him to the White House, Obama will hope to nurture an ally who could allow Indonesia to finally punch its weight and become a model for moderate, modern Muslim states.
“President Obama looks forward to charting with President Widodo a new phase for the US-Indonesian partnership,” said a senior US administration official.
But Widodo, like Obama before him, has seen economic troubles hamper efforts to become a transformational leader.
Indonesia’s notoriously protectionist economy has been stymied by systemic corruption, lower commodity prices and China’s economic slowdown.
Unemployment among the vast ranks of Indonesia’s youth stands at more than 20 percent, and efforts to attract investors have been undercut by economic nationalism, vested interests and red tape.
“He got a shock when he went into national politics,” said Achmad Sukarsono, an analyst with Eurasia Group.
“Indonesian politics is shaped by oligarchs and these are people who have been in power for decades.”
“You can’t expect that he can just come in and clean up and bring changes,” Sukarsono said, adding that former president Megawati Sukarnoputri remains a powerful patron and constraining influence.
“You can’t be your own man when you don’t have any experience at all in the big leagues,” Sukarsono said.
Building credibility as statesman
During his five-day visit to the United States, Widodo will try to strengthen his own political gravitational field.
“He will want to position himself as a statesman and visionary, in the same league with the leaders of the other largest countries in the world,” said Ernest Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Indonesian officials say agreements are expected on maritime defense, the economy, aviation and energy.
Indonesia is one of many nations in Southeast Asia struggling to peacefully untangle a knot of conflicting maritime claims.
Obama may offer help to bolster Indonesia’s fledgling coast guard.
“In their meeting, the presidents will discuss the breath of our bilateral relationship and global and regional issues, such as climate change and maritime security,” said the US official.
Obama is likely to encourage Indonesia to make commitments to curbing climate change ahead of a major carbon summit in Paris in December.
That is likely to include improving local forest and land management and promoting clean energy technologies.
Widodo will also look to woo investors who would dearly like to tap into Indonesia’s 250-million-strong economy, but have been put off.
In San Francisco, he will meet fund managers and Silicon Valley executives, including from Google and Apple’s Tim Cook.
He will also meet representatives from US mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, which is looking for assurances on its long-term future in Indonesia, and the US Chamber of Commerce.