JAKARTA // The US president Barack Obama made a much-delayed return to his boyhood home of Indonesia yesterday, seeking to engage Muslims and cement strategic relations on the second leg of his Asia tour.
Mr 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, but will have little time for tourism on a shortened, 24-hour visit that will focus on improving ties with the Muslim world and courting opportunities for US companies.
"It's wonderful to be here although I have to tell you that when you visit a place that you spent time in as a child, as the president, it's a little disorientating," he told reporters, standing alongside the Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Within a few hours of Mr Obama landing in Jakarta, Mr Yudhoyono said the two had sealed a "comprehensive partnership" agreement designed to boost ties across economic and other fields.
"We agreed to improve co-operation in a number of sectors, with the main agenda being trade and investment, education, energy, climate and the environment, security and democratisation," Mr Yudhoyono said.
Mr Obama said his administration was "on the right path" in its efforts to build bridges with Muslims around the world, but admitted the job was incomplete and there was "a lot more work to do".
"We don't expect that we are going to completely eliminate some of the misunderstandings and mistrust that have developed over a long period of time, but we do think that we're on the right path."
He said Indonesia was an example of a mainly Muslim country which the US had to engage on a range of levels, including trade, education and climate change.
"You come to a place like Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, but people here have a lot of other interests other than security," he said. "Security is important but I want to make sure that we are interacting with a wide range of people on a wide range of issues."
Jakarta was a leafy backwater still dotted with rice paddies when Mr Obama last set foot in the city 39 years ago, arriving there with his mother and stepfather for a four-year stay in the late 1960s.
Now, the Indonesian capital is a traffic-snarled metropolis whose population swells to 20 million people with its daily intake of commuters.
Mr Obama showed off some of his Indonesian language skills when he asked the foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, "apa kabar?" ("how are you?"), as he greeted officials at the airport.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that volcanic ash spewing from Mount Merapi in central Java could force Mr Obama to make the whirlwind trip even shorter, but said a speech scheduled for today would still take place.
Some 200 million of Indonesia's 240 million people are Muslim, and Mr Obama is scheduled today to visit the Istiqlal Mosque, South East Asia's largest. He is also due to make an open-air speech.
Security has been beefed up in a country that has fallen victim to a number of deadly terror attacks in recent years, with about 8,500 security personnel, including the military, deployed in strategic locations across Jakarta.
US officials say that, as with Mr 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.
Indonesia is South East Asia's biggest economy and the world's third-largest democracy, and is seen as a key strategic partner for the US as it faces 21st-century challenges such as Islamist extremists and the rise of China.
"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," Mr Obama's speechwriter Ben Rhodes said.
"India fits firmly in that category and so does Indonesia."
Mr Obama's speech today 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 Mr Obama cancelled two previous attempts to visit Indonesia earlier this year as domestic crises intervened in the US, and his curtailed visit may disappoint his hosts.
For a few days this week, it seemed Mr Obama's visit could be in doubt again, after Mount Merapi spewed ash high into the skies and raised fears that Air Force One would be unable to land in Jakarta.
But international flights to the city returned to normal yesterday, even as the volcano continued to belch debris and deadly gas some 430km to the east.
A total of 151 people have lost their lives since Merapi began its latest cycle of eruptions on October 26, and more than 300,000 have fled their homes.