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Faith, politics, business: Why US Vice-President Mike Pence visited Indonesia

21 April 2017 5:36 AM
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Jakarta: A day after Jakarta's Christian governor was ousted in an election riven with religious tension, US Vice-President Mike Pence pronounced that "Indonesia's tradition of moderate Islam frankly is an inspiration to the world".

"In your nation, as in mine, religion unifies, it doesn't divide," Pence gushed inside the presidential palace in Jakarta.

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To be fair, a version of these words is parroted by most Western leaders, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, when they visit Indonesia.

"That Pence should be saying this after the most divisive and sectarian election in Indonesian history is flabbergasting," says Australian National University associate professor Greg Fealy.

Timing aside, Pence's comments and his visit to Istiqlal, the biggest mosque in South-east Asia, suggest his trip to Indonesia was in part to reassure Indonesians concerned about the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Trump administration.

Fealy says they echo similar mollifying statements made by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to other foreign leaders.

The message seems to be, Fealy says, that while US President Donald Trump might say one thing to a domestic audience, the administration provides a more reassuring version to an international audience.

Despite having the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia has not been in the new US administration's crosshairs, although it was among the 16 countries named on Trump's trade hit list.

For example, Indonesia was not listed in the travel ban order that sought to block new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries.

The speaker of Indonesia's House of Representatives, Setya Novanto, who Trump described as "one of the most powerful men and a great man", made a bizarre appearance at a Trump press conference in New York in late 2015.

"Do they like me in Indonesia?" Trump asked, to which Setya gushed: "Yes, highly."

Trump's company has also paired with Indonesian magnate Hary Tanoesoedibjo to build luxury resorts in Bali and Bogor.

Still, Lowy Institute research fellow Aaron Connelly says any visit by a senior US official is going to have to do some remedial work in terms of interfaith relations, given Trump's reputation on these issues.

"I think that is why we saw him visit Masjid [mosque] Istiqlal and also why he attended an interfaith discussion, to assuage fears America is waging a war against Islam," Connelly says.

"I think Vice-President Pence realises the harm that impression could do in Indonesia."

Economic issues were also behind the visit. Connelly says every senior US official who visits Indonesia raises the issue of US mining giant Freeport, which operates the world's largest gold mine in Papua and is currently embroiled in a contract row with the Indonesian government.

However Connelly believes the primary reason Pence chose to visit Indonesia rather than Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand on his tour of South-east Asia was because it was the headquarters of ASEAN.

Pence announced Trump would attend an ASEAN summit in the Philippines in November and to Connelly's surprise, the Vice-President even met with young people from the Young South-east Asian Leaders' Initiative, a signature Obama program.

"This shows their commitment to this very ASEAN-centred strategy of engagement with the region," Connelly says.

"To a large extent the choice of Jakarta was about ASEAN, rather than economic issues or Indonesia as a Muslim country."


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