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Obama launches U.S.-Indonesia partnership

By GIULIA LASAGNI, MEDILL NEWS SERVICE, Written for UPI
Obama launches U.S.-Indonesia partnership
U.S. President Barack Obama discusses the October jobs numbers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on November 5, 2010. Job growth topped 150,000 in October but the President said more needs to be done. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama's tour of Asia included a short stop in Indonesia Tuesday to launch a new security and economic partnership between the United States and Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country in the world and a major power in Southeast Asia.

Obama, who lived in Indonesia for four years as a child, started his visit by meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and an official dinner Tuesday night.

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"It's wonderful to be able to come back as president and I hope to contribute to further understanding between the United States and Indonesia," Obama said in a televised news conference.

His trip, scheduled to last until Wednesday, was shortened by some hours due to Mount Merapi's eruptions. Obama consequently will miss celebrations for Heroes Day, Indonesia's independence day.

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On Wednesday, Obama was to visit the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Indonesia. He is also to deliver a speech on U.S.-Indonesia relations and, at the University of Indonesia, discuss American outreach to Muslim communities around the world.

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According to a 2009 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, Indonesia is one of the few predominantly Muslim countries in the world -- Muslims are about 86 percent of the population -- where the image of the United States is largely positive.

The study found that 63 percent of Indonesians have a favorable opinion of the United States compared, for example, to 27 percent of Egyptians and 25 percent of Jordanians. Obama's approval ratings are even higher, with 71 percent of Indonesians expressing confidence that he will positively contribute to world affairs.

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Ben Rhodes, National Security Council spokesman, said Indonesia "sets a very positive example in terms of both its close relationship with the United States, in terms of its religious diversity and in terms of its democracy but in a Muslim-majority context."

Building bridges with the Muslim world, however, will be only one of the goals of Obama's stop in Jakarta.

"This is a country with whom historically relations have been somewhat tender, sometimes adversarial. But in the last decade, as Indonesia has become -- has emerged as a democracy and under President Yudhoyono, they are playing a larger and more constructive role in regional and world affairs," said Jeff Bader, senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

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Indonesia, which became a democracy in 1999 after decades of authoritarian rule, is a key player in Southeast Asia, although it still faces problems such as poverty, corruption, human rights violations. In 2011, Indonesia will take on the leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a political and economic organization of Southeast Asian countries.

The partnership program between the United States and Indonesia, announced Tuesday during a news conference with Obama and Yudhoyono, will encompass a variety of key issues such as science, technology, health and trade. A special emphasis was placed on education and climate change.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, Indonesia is one of the top emitting countries of greenhouse gases, which are at the origin of climate change.

The United States will invest $136 million over three years in sustainable developments projects that will combine environmental protection and socio-economic improvements. The United States will also establish an Indonesia Climate Change Center in cooperation with Norway.

The United States plans to provide $165 million in assistance to Indonesia's higher-level education and will increase English language programs and Fulbright grants to the country.

Bader said that Obama, "in part because of his own personal experience in Indonesia, would like to see more Indonesians studying in the U.S."

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While the Export-Import Bank, the U.S. official export credit agency, is expected to make Indonesia one of its priority countries, trade wasn't as central as it was during Obama's stop in India earlier in his Asian trip, mainly because of Indonesia's endemic corruption.

"U.S. trade with Indonesia is not as substantial as it should be, frankly," Bader said.

He added that corruption is one of the first issues that come up when potential investors consider Indonesia.

Obama's next stop will be South Korea where he will have a bilateral meeting with President Lee Myung-bak and will attend the Group of 20 summit.

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