WASHINGTON – Indonesia’s leader looked to cement his nation’s growing ties with the United States, declaring after a meeting Monday with President Barack Obama that Southeast Asia’s largest economy intended to join a sweeping U.S.-backed Pacific Rim trade deal.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo is making his first Washington visit since winning power a year ago, and is keen to drum up American investment in a flagging economy. U.S. companies complain that economic protectionism makes it difficult to do business there.
“Indonesia intends to join the TPP,” Widodo said in the Oval Office, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He provided no other details, but described the Indonesian economy as open.
Obama said Widodo was leading Indonesia in the “right direction.”
“We want to be a partner with you,” he said.
Indonesia had previously expressed interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But this is the strongest indication yet that it is serious about joining the pact, which the U.S. has negotiated with 11 other nations. Once the pact is ratified and takes effect — a process that could take a couple of years — it would cut tariffs and streamline trade rules among nations that account for 40 percent of global GDP.
The two leaders also discussed climate change and counterterrorism against groups like the Islamic State. Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation and largely moderate.
Another agenda item was maritime security cooperation, Obama said, alluding to tensions in the South China Sea, where U.S. officials say a Navy ship is about to sail inside what China considers its territorial waters around the disputed Spratly Islands.
“We discussed the importance of working through forums like ASEAN and the East Asia Forum to encourage further strengthening of the rules and an international order governing the behavior of nations in the maritime area,” Obama said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Indonesia is the de facto leader. He did not mention China.
Indonesia balances its relations between the U.S. and China — which is an even more important source of trade and investment than America. Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea, but is concerned about China’s expansive maritime claims that may infringe on the territorial waters of the Natuna islands that is part of the Indonesian archipelago.
Widodo has put little focus on foreign relations since he won election last year on a wave of popular support. His visit, which began Sunday, is a chance to build a rapport with Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia.
But the Indonesian leader was being shadowed by events at home: raging forest fires that have spread a thick, smoky haze over Indonesia as well as Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
Officials said Widodo would be cutting short his U.S. visit to deal with the forest fire crisis. His schedule in Washington will go ahead as planned, but he’ll skip a stop in San Francisco and will fly home on Tuesday afternoon.
Indonesia is a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the White House meeting came ahead of a global climate change summit.
Obama said he and Widodo had discussed “why it’s so important that large countries like ours work together to arrive at the strongest possible set of targets and international agreements before we arrive in Paris in just over a month.”
Widodo said they had agreed to work together on the issue “for the sake of future generations.”
Researchers estimate that since September, emissions from Indonesia’s rampant land and forest fires exceeded the average daily emissions from all U.S. economic activity. That’s because many of the fires are on peat lands that are extremely rich in carbon.