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US-Indonesian relations turn testy

Associated Press - June 18, 1997

Jay Solomon, Jakarta – American Embassy officials here have grown increasingly somber over the past month, listening to the war of words between Indonesia and the US But help is nowhere in sight.

Earlier this month, Indonesia canceled the purchase of nine F-16 fighter jets from the US and withdrew from participating in a US-led military-education program. Last week, the US took a procedural step toward joining the European Union and Japan in asking the World Trade Organization to rule that Indonesia discriminates against foreign auto makers. And in the background has been mounting criticism in Washington of Indonesia's human-rights record.

Yet the White House, still dogged by the controversy over President Clinton's links to Asian money – and Indonesian money in particular – has been ineffectual in tackling these and other bilateral problems, US diplomats say. Mr. Clinton, vulnerable to charges that he might be repaying political debts to Indonesian supporters, has left the Indonesian debate to Congress, the diplomats contend.

The situation "is the first tangible example of Clinton's scandal hurting our foreign relations," said one US diplomat in Jakarta. "Congress keeps bashing Indonesia, but our White House is powerless or unwilling to do anything to keep things on an even keel."

What is demoralizing to some diplomats in the field is that the canceled F-16 order and the military-training pullout might have been avoided in other years. Attacks on Indonesia for alleged human-rights abuses in East Timor and electoral irregularities aren't new. What is different is that the White House hasn't countered the debate to defend a key foreign-policy interest, the diplomats say.

"Our policy [toward East Asia] is fine, but it is extremely difficult for the administration to take the lead" in implementing it, said a State Department official who focuses on Asia.

According to Indonesia's foreign minister, Ali Alatas, President Suharto sent Mr. Clinton a letter early this month complaining of "wholly unjustified criticisms in the US Congress against Indonesia" for its human-rights record. That criticism, wrote the Indonesian president, was why he was canceling the F-16 order and pulling out of the military-education program. Mr. Alatas said that by removing those two issues from Congress's plate, the relationship could move forward "based on mutual respect, mutual benefit and noninterference in each other's affairs." On Monday, Mr. Suharto said industrialized countries use issues such as human rights as a pretext to protect their own economic and political interests. He blasted Congress, in particular, saying American lawmakers "manipulate human rights, democratization and labor problems for their own interests." Indonesia, he said, had to fight back by proving that it implements human rights "according to our understanding and concept of it."

Some US diplomats fear a further deterioration of relations. Of particular concern to Indonesian and US business executives is that Congress might try to focus on Indonesia's trade privileges with the US, which are valued at around $700 million a year.

If Congress, led by Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D., R.I.), attempts to restrict Indonesia's trade privileges, many US corporations could be hurt – and they may try to fill the vacuum created by the White House. Over the past two years, Jakarta has approved some $3.5 billion of new US investments. Big US energy companies, including Exxon Corp., Atlantic Richfield Co. and Caltex Petroleum Corp. (a joint venture between Texaco Inc. and Chevron Inc.), have major interests in Indonesia.