Q&A: Stanford's Emmerson on Obama's upcoming trip to Asia

L.A. Cicero Don Emmerson

Don Emmerson, senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for International Studies and director of the Southeast Asia Forum in the Asia-Pacific Research Center.

President Obama heads to Asia in early November to reinforce America's relationships with Muslim leaders, global economic giants and political allies. He's scheduled to spend time in India and Indonesia before heading to the G20 summit in South Korea, followed by an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Japan.

Donald Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, spoke with Stanford Report about the upcoming trip.

Emmerson also will join three other Stanford scholars – Thomas Fingar, Daniel Sneider and David Straub – for a panel discussion on Obama's tour. Barack Obama: The Pacific President? will be held from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 27, in the Philippines Conference Room in Encina Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

While Emmerson expects the focus of the economic meetings in Seoul and Yokohama to be on "the critical need to rebalance the global economy," he also is interested in Obama's much-anticipated visit to Indonesia and how the trip will play into U.S. relations with China and India.


Why is Indonesia such an important stop for Obama?

Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world. It has more Muslims than any other country. And it's a democracy – a stable democracy. Indonesia is, in many ways, the poster child for Obama's foreign policy toward the Muslim world.  Focusing on our good relations with a moderate Muslim-majority democracy compensates for the anger and disappointment that we can't turn Iraq or Afghanistan into effective democracies. There are not a lot of majority-Muslim countries that are democracies, let alone one as big as Indonesia. So talking about Indonesia constructively changes the topic.


How good is the relationship between the United States and Indonesia?

Indonesia has always been proud of its independence, but Jakarta and Washington have managed to develop closer ties. They've drafted a "comprehensive partnership" that involves economic, environmental and security agreements. A major purpose of Obama's trip to Jakarta is to inaugurate that partnership and thereby upgrade relations between the two countries.


How religiously and culturally diverse is Indonesia, and how can Obama capitalize on the country's diversity?

Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country, but 12 percent of Indonesians are not Muslims. Six different faiths are officially recognized: Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and Protestantism. A cathedral stands across the street from the main mosque in downtown Jakarta. Islamic law is not and has never been the law of the land. In 1945, when Indonesian independence was declared, the country's founding fathers explicitly rejected Islamic law as the basis of the state. 

In this context one can expect President Obama to point to Indonesia as an instance of harmony between religions, despite the existence of a small militantly Islamist fringe, and despite signs that Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has not been willing to stand up against Islamist intimidation as forthrightly as many Indonesians might wish.  


Some of Obama's political enemies have tried to cast the Christian president as a Muslim, pointing to his name and the fact that he spent some of his childhood in Indonesia. Do you expect his visit to Jakarta will fan misinformation about his background? And does he run the risk of playing into the stewing anti-Islamic sentiment in America by embracing a Muslim country?

Were his visit to Indonesia to occur before the midterm elections on Nov. 2, the trip would almost certainly be used by his American political opponents for partisan purposes.  There would be a real risk of misinformation or even disinformation, and of stoking fears of Islam.  But the trip will occur after the election, and the motivation to distort for partisan advantage will have been accordingly reduced.  

That said, if President Obama is planning to give a speech in Indonesia addressed to the Muslim world, it will have to be carefully written to minimize its misinterpretation by commentators back in the United States.  


How do you expect Indonesians to receive the president?

Most Indonesians will welcome Obama's arrival.  One can also expect some Muslim activists to demonstrate against the visit while criticizing U.S. policy as anti-Islamic.  To the extent that such dissent is carried by the media back to American audiences, however, the net effect may be to emphasize just how vast is the distance between the U.S. president on the one hand and radical Islamism on the other.  


Obama's visit to Asia does not include a stop in China, the largest economic powerhouse in the region and the world's most populous country. But he will spend time in India, the continent's second heaviest hitter and a key player in the so-called "Rise of Asia." How must the United States balance its interests between these neighbors?

You have these two huge countries sitting right next to each other, and the question arises: Which one will do better? Many in the United States are rooting for the Indians. Their democracy doesn’t imprison people who speak out against the government. Their economy has done quite well, and there's a desire to prove that democracy and development can go hand in hand.

Chinese hegemony in Asia is not in the interest of the United States. India is a potential counterweight against China. Chinese policy lately in defense of its maritime claims has come close to bullying. The fact that India is a democracy enhances its reputation in the United States.

China remains the biggest entity in Asia. But the question is: How can China be brought into a comity of nations worldwide in a way that furthers peace and prosperity? The optimistic view is that China's economic growth and its interaction with the rest of the world will allow that to happen naturally.

But that may be naïve. China has significant territorial disagreements with virtually every country on its borders. If India continues developing and remains stable, it could help to ensure that China plays a constructive role.  When smaller Asian countries are meeting around a table with a Chinese delegate sitting here and an Indian delegate sitting there, there's going to be more of a balance.


Will Obama's visit to India help smooth tensions created by America's alliance with Pakistan – an Indian adversary but an essential partner for the United States in the war in Afghanistan?

You would think that because of the antagonism between India and Pakistan, the United States would be neutral in its approach to both countries. Washington is in fact neutral on the dispute over Kashmir. But the tilt in American attention toward Pakistan due to the situation in Afghanistan has been unmistakable. So one reason for this trip is to right that imbalance. And someday Afghanistan will cease to be our responsibility. If we're going to prepare for a post-Afghan future, it makes sense to cultivate good relations with India, a huge country with a fairly stable polity and a strong economy.