Jakarta: US President Barack Obama finally made a much-delayed homecoming of sorts to Indonesia on 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 with his late mother, though he will have little time for tourism on the 24-hour visit in which he will attempt to renew his outreach to the Muslim world while courting new markets and business opportunities for US companies.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that volcanic ash spewing from the mouth of Mount Merapi in central Java could force Obama to cut back the whirlwind trip even shorter.
“The modelling for the volcanic ash will likely necessitate that we leave Indonesia several hours earlier than the schedule had it laid out tomorrow,” he said, adding however that a keynote speech scheduled for Wednesday would still take place.
Remembered by his old Indonesian schoolmates as a chubby boy called “Barry”, Obama will hold talks and share an official dinner with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Tuesday, focusing on economic and security issues.
The next day, Obama is scheduled to visit the Istiqlal Mosque, Southeast Asia’s largest, and leverage his popularity with an open-air speech to the Indonesia’s 240 million people, some 200 million of whom are Muslim.
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.
“‘Barry´ to Return Home,” trumpeted The Jakarta Post newspaper, while the Koran Tempo daily declared: “Finally He’s Here.”
US officials say that, just as with Obama’s trip to India, his visit to Indonesia is designed to reinvigorate relations with an “inspiring” emerging democracy and an economy with a key role to play in the early 21st century.
Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s biggest economy and is seen as a key strategic partner for the United States as it prepares for 21st-century challenges like the rise of China and the threat of radical Islamism.
“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 on 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 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, and his snatched day in the country where he lived for four years as a boy may disappoint his hosts.
Originally, Obama had planned to show his family fondly remembered haunts of his youth, but given his diminished political standing following mid-term elections a wallow in nostalgia abroad would be a political step too far.
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 26 October, and more than 300,000 have been forced to flee their homes.
Obama’s speech will mark his most high profile chance for discourse on US relations with the Islamic world in a foreign country since his landmark speech to the world’s Muslims in the Egyptian capital in June 2009.
But officials cautioned against the idea that Obama needed to renew his commitment for a “new beginning” with Islam, after a furore over plans to build an Islamic cultural centre near the site of the 11 September attacks in New York.