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  February 19, 2009

Clinton in Jakarta to seek new strategic partnership

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touched down in Jakarta amid tight security Wednesday, bringing a mission to seek a stronger partnership with the world's most populous Muslim country, reported Kyodo news agency.

Jakarta is her second stop after Tokyo on her first overseas four-country tour, which will also take her to Beijing and Seoul.

"During our telephone conversation on February 12, she wanted to make a strategic partnership with Indonesia, but both of us have yet to formulate the substances and procedures over the cooperation," Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda told a hearing with legislators Monday.

Wirajuda, who will meet Clinton later Wednesday, did not give further details about the partnership. He did say, however, a joint declaration, accompanied by a plan of action containing "concrete measures and fixed timelines," will be signed by both countries during the Clinton visit.

Media speculation said Clinton, who will pay a courtesy call on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Thursday, may ask Indonesia to serve as a "bridge" between the superpower and the Muslim world.

According to the minister, the visit will also likely focus on the Middle East peace process, but whether Indonesia might be included as a player in the Middle East is still unclear.

Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute, said that "an Indonesian face on Islam has the potential to completely change the way many in the West view Muslims."

In his Jan. 20 inaugural speech, US President Barack Obama promised to open a new chapter with the Muslim world, saying the United States is seeking a way forward based on mutual respect and mutual interests.

Obama spent time in Indonesia in the early 1970s after his American mother divorced his Kenyan father and married an Indonesian. Many Indonesians have criticized U.S. policy toward the Middle East and its support for Israel, but they now hope the new president will reflect on his experience in Indonesia when formulating his policies.

A series of anti-Israel and anti-American protests have been taking place in the country since Israel's offensive in Gaza began in late December last year. "By accident mostly of his birth and upbringing, Barack Obama's popularity in Indonesia is off the charts.

All ears in Indonesia are open to what he and his representatives have to say," Lohman said. "The way Clinton frames her visit, what she talks about, and how she says it will set the boundaries on a U.S.-Indonesia relationship that has extraordinary potential," he added.

Meanwhile, in an article published by the Jakarta Post, political observer Jusuf Wanandi said that by establishing strategic relations with Indonesia, the United States can regain credibility in the Muslim world and develop "a stronger framework to counter terrorism and extremism."

Jakarta police have deployed about 2,800 personnel, including snipers and members of the police elite unit Mobile Brigade, as security during Clinton's visit.

Besides meeting her Indonesian counterpart and Yudhoyono, Clinton is also to meet Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Countries, on Wednesday.

She will be the first US secretary of state to visit the Asean Secretariat, according to the press release by the secretariat. The United States was the first Asean dialogue partner appointing an ambassador to Asean.

Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Clinton will also attend a dinner with Indonesian civilian society, including Muslim leaders at the Archive Building, a historic site in Jakarta Old Town, on Wednesday evening.

On Thursday, after meeting Yudhoyono, she is to have a telephone conversation with former President Megawati Sukarnoputri. It is unclear what they will discuss, but media speculation says Clinton may touch North Korea as Megawati is a friend of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. US secretaries of state have traditionally visited Europe on their first official overseas trips and political analysts have suggested the fact that Obama sent Clinton to Asia first indicates a new brand of US foreign policy.

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