Obama pledges close partnership on return to Indonesia
Issued on: Modified:
US President Barack Obama has praised Indonesia's successful transition to democracy and sealed a "comprehensive partnership" agreement with his Indonesian counterpart on the first day of a long-delayed visit to his childhood country.
Watch President Obama's speech to the Muslim world live on FRANCE 24 from 4:15am Paris time (GMT+1)
AFP - US President Barack Obama made a much-delayed return to his boyhood home of Indonesia Tuesday, seeking to engage Muslims and cement strategic relations on the second leg of his Asia tour.
Obama arrived in Jakarta under stormy skies on Air Force One from India, as his nine-day Asian odyssey took him from the world's largest democracy to its most populous Muslim-majority nation.
The president spent four years in Indonesia as a boy, but will have little time for tourism on
a shortened, 24-hour visit, which will focus on improving ties with the Muslim world and courting opportunities for US companies.
"It's wonderful to be here although I have to tell you that when you visit a place that you spent time in as a child, as the president, it's a little disorientating," he told reporters, standing alongside Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Within a few hours of Obama landing in Jakarta, Yudhoyono said the two had sealed a "comprehensive partnership" agreement designed to boost ties across economic and other fields.
"We agreed to improve cooperation in a number of sectors, with the main agenda being trade and investment, education, energy, climate and the environment, security and democratisation," Yudhoyono told reporters.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that volcanic ash spewing from Mount Merapi in central Java could force Obama to make the whirlwind trip even shorter, but said a speech scheduled for Wednesday would still take place.
Jakarta was a leafy backwater still dotted with rice paddies when Obama last set foot in the city 39 years ago, arriving there with his mother and stepfather for four-year stay in the late 1960s.
Now, the Indonesian capital is a traffic-snarled metropolis whose population swells up to 20 million people with its daily intake of commuters.
But Obama's old schoolmates said they clearly remember the chubby boy they called "Barry".
"I believe that he still remembers us although we haven't met for about 40 years," one classmate, Sonni Gondokusumo, 49, told AFP.
Obama showed off some of his Indonesian language skills when he asked Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa "apa kabar?" ("how are you?"), as he greeted officials at the airport.
Some 200 million of Indonesia's 240 million people are Muslim, and Obama is scheduled Wednesday to visit the Istiqlal Mosque, Southeast Asia's largest. He is also due to make an open-air speech.
Security has been beefed up in a country that has fallen victim to a number of deadly terror attacks in recent years, with about 8,500 security personnel, including the military, deployed in strategic locations across Jakarta.
US officials say that, as with Obama's trip to India, his visit to Indonesia is designed to reinvigorate relations with an "inspiring" emerging democracy and one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
Indonesia is Southeast Asia's biggest economy and the world's third-largest democracy, and is seen as a key strategic partner for the United States as it faces 21st-century challenges such as radical Islam and the rise of China.
"We've had this focus on Asia and on emerging powers and on democracies as kind of cornerstones of the kind of strategic orientation of the United States in the 21st century," Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes said.
"India fits firmly in that category and so does Indonesia."
Obama's speech Wednesday has the twin aims of engaging Indonesians on their embrace of democracy and the free market following the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1999, and of renewing the dialogue with Muslims opened at his landmark Cairo address last year.
An embarrassed Obama cancelled two previous attempts to visit Indonesia earlier this year as domestic crises intervened in the US, and his curtailed visit may disappoint his hosts.
For a few days this week, it seemed Obama's visit could be in doubt again, after Mount Merapi spewed ash high into the skies and raised fears that Air Force One would be unable to land in Jakarta.
But international flights to the city returned to normal on Tuesday, even as the volcano continued to belch debris and deadly gas some 430 kilometres (270 miles) to the east.
A total of 151 people have lost their lives since Merapi began its latest cycle of eruptions on October 26, and more than 300,000 have fled their homes.