Obama’s Indonesia visit called off

The visit would have occurred a year after Obama's Cairo speech Copyright: FlickrStorebukkebruse

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US President Barack Obama has cancelled a much-awaited trip to Indonesia intended to drive his science diplomacy mission to the Muslim world.

The two countries were to sign a comprehensive agreement on 14 June, during Obama’s visit, which was expected to include new funds for science and technology collaboration.

The postponement of the trip, announced yesterday (3 June), was most likely because of Obama’s duties in dealing with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The Obama administration has spent months preparing for expanded cooperation in science and technology between the two countries. Indonesia received a stream of missions from the White House, the State Department and the Department of Commerce. And US energy executives accompanied US officials in May, to promote the purchase of renewable energy technologies.

Indonesia hopes to increase its clean energy production from seven per cent to 15 per cent by 2025, and Obama’s National Export Initiative is aiming to double US exports in five years.

In return, US officials will aim to open up research and educational opportunities for Indonesian students. This year, a bilateral science and technology agreement, which encourages the exchange of experts, information, and best practices — as well as joint research projects and direct cooperation between government agencies and universities — was signed.

But so far the missing piece is a serious commitment of funds, experts say.

"Funding is a big problem with science and technology agreements," said Vaughan Turekian, chief international officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "There might be areas of cooperation, but they don’t provide a funding mechanism."

"So far there has been purely science diplomacy, with an emphasis on the diplomacy side," said Caroline Wagner — a research scientist at the George Washington University Center for International Science and Technology Policy, United States — who notes the activities so far do not commit the United States to any action.

US Science Envoy Bruce Alberts, who visited Indonesia in May, told the Jakarta Post that commitments for funds would be a part of Obama’s visit.

The science diplomacy agenda, in which the US serves key foreign policy objectives by strengthening ties and reducing negative perceptions, was launched one year ago in a speech in Cairo, Egypt. Obama’s trip was to coincide with the month of the speech’s first anniversary, to demonstrate the administration’s commitment.

But momentum is likely to continue despite the cancellation of the trip, said Turekian. "Science cooperation is ongoing. Having the president highlight it is an important thing, and it will go forward regardless."

This is the second delay — a visit planned earlier in the year was postponed during Obama’s domestic battle over health reforms.