A year ago, Alwi Shihab was teaching comparative religion at Harvard University's Divinity School. Now the former professor has been named Indonesia's Foreign Minister. Shihab met with TIME reporter Jason Tedjasukmana in Jakarta. Excerpts from the interview:
TIME: How will your foreign policy differ from your predecessor's?
Shihab: It will be very much in line, but we have a different emphasis: economic more than political. I also envisage a cut in spending in the department.
TIME: Why do you think you were chosen Foreign Minister?
Shihab: I don't know. You can answer that. One of the considerations is that I am at home with the Islamic and Middle Eastern countries. I have a big network in the West and, more importantly, I have a sense of business. I was in the construction business for 15 years, relatively successfully, and I have a reconciliatory nature.
TIME: Do you have ties to Washington?
Shihab: I have many friends in Washington: academics, people in the Administration, former ambassadors.
TIME: How will you restore Indonesia's image and win back the confidence of the IMF and other donors?
Shihab: We will show them that this is a legitimate government trying to do away with a culture of corruption and bribery. We will work hand in hand with the economic team. I will try to position the Foreign Ministry as a marketing center to sell our commodities.
TIME: Have the IMF and other institutions been too aggressive in dictating terms to Indonesia in the past?
Shihab: I think they have done their job properly. As to what extent they are imposing their will, it depends on the angle you look from. Some look at it as imposing, others look at it as the preconditions for assistance to be given out.
TIME: Does Indonesia need to have a counterbalance to these institutions?
Shihab: Yes, but through the empowerment of our own resources.
TIME: Why has China been selected for the President's first official visit?
Shihab: As the President said, "Why not?" If you choose somewhere other than China, people would ask you, "Why not China?" It is a great neighbor with sympathy to our cause. But we are not thinking of abandoning our Western friends. It is only a matter of putting an emphasis on neighbors.
TIME: Should ASEAN be worried about Indonesia growing closer to China?
Shihab: No. We will use all ways and means to achieve our goal, which is to have solid cooperation with China, India and the ASEAN countries, without abandoning the West. In addition to that, we want to attract Middle Eastern countries to jump in with their petro-dollars.
TIME: Are you relieved that the East Timor issue has essentially been taken off your plate?
Shihab: I am fortunate that East Timor--which annoyed [former Foreign Minister] Ali Alatas for so many years--will not be part of my agenda.