President Obama will travel to Indonesia and Australia next week in a delayed, but nonetheless important trip to the country with the world's largest Muslim population and a key American ally facing increased pressure by the United States' top regional competitor, China.
"In many ways, America has been somewhat absent from the region over the last several years and we are committed to restoring that leadership," said National Security Council communications director Ben Rhodes, who called the trip an "important opportunity to advance American interests in this vitally important part of the world."
Leaving Sunday, Obama will first travel to Guam, arriving Monday, March 22. That evening, Guam time, Obama will host a public event to speak to military personnel and the community in Guam, an unincorporated U.S. territory.
Then on Tuesday, March 23, the White House team will move on to Indonesia. After an arrival ceremony, Obama will hold a bilateral meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, after which the two leaders will hold a joint press conference. Obama will be the guest at a state dinner Tuesday night in Jakarta.
The visit will give Obama the opportunity to update the world on his drive to establish a new U.S. relationship with the Muslim world as he promised last June in Cairo, which was the last time he gave a speech in a Muslim-majority country.
"We're looking to advance in specific our partnership to facilitate the president's efforts to build a new beginning with Muslims around the world," said Rhodes.
On Wednesday, March 24, Obama will give a speech to discuss the "comprehensive partnership" between the United States and Indonesia, the details of which will be announced at the time. Climate change will definitely be discussed, seeing as how Indonesia is the world's fourth-largest emitter, said Rhodes.
Other than that, not much concrete policy news is expected.
"The highlights are pretty thin, to be honest," said Bush-era NSC Senior Asia Director Mike Green about the U.S.-Indonesia partnership. "I think one of the deep concerns in the administration is that they're going on this trip and they don't have a lot of deliverables."
The administration is still trying to convince Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, to remove his objections to increased military-to-military cooperation with Indonesia, Green said. Leahy doesn't want to aid the Kopassus group, an special forces unit of the Indonesian military that stands accused of human rights violations.
On Thursday, March 25, Obama will host a civil society event in Bali. The popular resort destination was chosen because it hosts the Bali Democracy Forum and gives Obama the chance to meet with civil society leaders and highlight their role in building democracy. Later that day, the team will head east to Canberra for dinner with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
On Friday, March 26, Obama will meet with Governor General Quentin Bryce (the Australian representative of the British monarchy), and have a bilateral meeting with Rudd, followed by another joint press conference. The team will leave Friday night to return to Washington.
Trade will be near the top of Obama's agenda in Australia, according to NSC Senior Asia Director Jeffrey Bader. The first negotiating meetings for the Trans Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-proposed trading bloc that would include Australia, are in Melbourne this week, and the president wants to move "rapidly" toward a consensus on that, Bader said.
"There are obstacles to trade. We need to do better; we need to talk with the Indonesians about that," Bader said.
"In both countries, we'll be looking to highlight the export potential of the United States," added Rhodes.
Some see the trip as a pivot after a rocky year of trying to set U.S.-China relations on course.
"The first year, the focus was on China," said former NSC Asia Director Victor Cha. "As the president said in the speech in Japan in November, China was central to the U.S. global agenda. It was really all-out engagement. And that kind of didn't work out very well."
"So that was Year One and, sort of, Year Two now is the do-over year," said Cha. "They're trying it a different way."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.