- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived last night for a visit to the home of the world’s largest Muslim population, a democracy that the Bush administration hopes to build up as the key player in Southeast Asia.

U.S. officials say President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is the right man to make his nation a stabilizing force in the region, and heap praise for his efforts to bring about internal reform.

“Indonesia can be a big player again,” a senior U.S. official said. “This place has the potential. There are still a lot of problems, no question about it. But if Indonesia failed, the cost would be enormous.”

Washington’s push for a stronger Indonesia is not driven by a desire to make it a “counterweight” to China, the official said, but it is hard to escape comparisons with India, another rising Asian power being enthusiastically courted by the Bush administration.

Indonesia is the only country in Southeast Asia to be visited by Miss Rice during her 14 months in office, except for a quick stop in Thailand in July to tour tsunami-devastated areas.

The senior U.S. official, who insisted on speaking on background so as not to overshadow the secretary, said a good way for Indonesia to raise its international profile would be for it to become more active in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

“We’ve always based our Asia policy on Japan, China and ASEAN,” he said. “But ASEAN has been pretty weak in the past few years without Indonesian leadership.”

Miss Rice snubbed the group last year by skipping its regional forum — a first for a secretary of state. She does plan to attend this year’s meeting.

The administration cast a vote of confidence in Indonesia last year by removing restrictions on military cooperation with the country, which the senior U.S. official said “had a huge psychological effect here.”

“This is a state that has really made giant strides over the last several years,” Miss Rice told reporters during the 30-hour flight to Indonesia from Chile. She said the relationship “stands right at the heart of our strong efforts at cooperation throughout Southeast Asia.”

Washington makes no secret of its help for Indonesia, whose population of 240 million is larger than that of all other ASEAN countries combined. It is delighted by the country’s move toward democracy after decades of authoritarian rule.

“U.S. assistance is helping Indonesia reform its armed forces and improve its maritime security and disaster-response capabilities,” the State Department said in a fact sheet last week.

“The U.S. government is helping Indonesian government and civic organizations build effective and accountable local governance, to address conflict and encourage pluralism, and to consolidate the democratic reform agenda,” it said.

Sources in Jakarta said Mr. Yudhoyono and his government have been receiving additional private advice from both U.S. officials and American nongovernmental and business groups.

The president and his aides recently engineered an increase in retail prices of petroleum products after several of his predecessors had resisted ending heavy subsidies for fear of losing political support.

Mr. Yudhoyono, whose approval ratings remain steady above 60 percent, deployed an old White House tactic. His aides leaked his plan with some defending it and others criticizing it, to create the illusion that there was disagreement in his administration and that he was torn between the two sides.

“By the time the decision was announced, no one was surprised, and you almost had the impression that he was the last, reluctant guy to agree to this process, even though he was driving it,” the senior U.S. official said.

He said Mr. Yudhoyono’s biggest challenges are an economy in which more than half of Indonesians live on less than $2 a day, and a clumsy and inefficient government bureaucracy.

“The rogue element is the civilian bureaucracy, not the military, and particularly the top levels,” the official said. “They get up to these positions and expect to make money to pay off somebody else.”

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