JAKARTA: US President Barack Obama finally made a much-delayed return to his boyhood home of Indonesia 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, but will have little time for tourism on the 24-hour visit which will focus on improving ties with the Muslim world and courting opportunities for US companies.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that volcanic ash spewing from Mount Merapi in central Java could force Obama to make the whirlwind trip even shorter, but said a speech scheduled for Wednesday would still take place.
Jakarta was a leafy backwater still dotted with rice paddies when Obama last set foot in the city 39 years ago. Now it is a traffic-snarled metropolis whose population swells up to 20 million people with its daily intake of commuters.
But Obama’s old schoolmates said they clearly remember the chubby boy they called “Barry”.
“I believe that he still remembers us although we haven’t met for about 40 years,” one classmate, Sonni Gondokusumo, 49, told AFP.
Obama showed off some of his Indonesian language skills when he asked Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa “apa kabar?”, or “how are you?”, as he greeted officials at the airport.
With lightning forking across the sky, his motorcade cut a swathe through Jakarta’s notorious jams as he headed to the presidential palace and talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, expected to focus on security and economic issues.
“It’s great to be here. It’s wonderful to see you all,” Obama told assembled dignitaries.
Some 200 million of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Muslim, and Obama is scheduled Wednesday to visit the Istiqlal Mosque, Southeast Asia’s largest. He is also due to make an open-air speech.
US officials say that, as with Obama’s trip to India, his visit to Indonesia is designed to reinvigorate relations with an “inspiring” emerging democracy and one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
“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.”
Jeff Bader, senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council, said US trade with Indonesia was “not as substantial as it should be”.
“Two way trade is about 20 billion dollars but we think it could be much, much higher,” he said.
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 the 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 in the US, and his snatched day in the country where he lived as a child 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.