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The hazy reason why Apple’s CEO was stood up

Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers the keynote address during Apple WWDC on June 8, 2015, in San Francisco, California.
Getty Images
Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers the keynote address during Apple WWDC on June 8, 2015, in San Francisco, California.

Indonesia's president cut short his maiden trip to the U.S., skipping a much ballyhooed meeting with Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, as the political pressure increases over the Asian country's raging forest fires.

It isn't entirely clear why Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly referred to as Jokowi, cancelled his dinner plans with Cook but regional experts and media have pinned the blame on the country's forest fires.

Even though they are an annual event - Indonesians deliberately set rainforests ablaze to clear land, generally to produce palm oil - a lack of rain and the El Nino weather system has meant that the air pollution caused by the fires has been particularly bad this year, covering Southeast Asia in a so-called haze.

But, the fires have been raging for months so why did Jokowi choose to cancel his trip? Experts are puzzled.

Read More Hazed in: Pollution hits Singapore fitness industry

"There's nothing he could do this week that he couldn't have done last week. There's nothing he could do from Jakarta that he couldn't do from San Francisco," Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at Lowy Institute for International Policy, said in a phone interview.

Connelly noted that Indonesia's failure to get the forest fires under control has damaged the country's credibility with its neighbors. Over the past couple months, the pollution has caused some flights into Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines to be cancelled as well as forcing some schools to close.

Indonesia's president had been expected to chat up Apple, Google and other technology players about investment projects in the country, both to boost internet access in Indonesia and the country's tin industry, as the metal is used in iPhone production, Reuters reported. Apple is also expected to set up a research and development center in Indonesia, according to media reports.

A representative of the president's office said via email early Wednesday that Jokowi assigned four ministers to meet with U.S. technology CEOs in his place.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for information on the meeting.

Indonesian soldiers extinguish the fire on burned peatland and fields on October 2, 2015 in South Sumatra, Indonesia.
Ulet Ifansasti | Getty Images
Indonesian soldiers extinguish the fire on burned peatland and fields on October 2, 2015 in South Sumatra, Indonesia.

Indonesia desperately needs investment in its technology infrastructure. At the end of 2014, only about 23 percent of the population had access to a smartphone, only 31 percent of the total population used a 3G network and only 4 percent was using the much-faster 4G LTE, Naveen Menon, the head of the communications, media and technology practice for Asia at A.T. Kearney, told CNBC.

As part of Jokowi's U.S. trip, the U.S. government pledged this week to give Indonesia at least $2.75 million to help fight the current fires and prevent future ones. Jokowi has said previously that the country won't offer any more licenses for clearing peatland, but it isn't clear whether the government will enforce the restrictions.

Read More Jokowi: We've only built foundation of Indonesia's 'house'

But there are signs the political pressure over the fires may be ratcheting up at home, with the haze reaching the country's capital of Jakarta at the weekend.

"With the Indonesian military preparing an evacuation of the most vulnerable people from these provinces, Jokowi is facing mounting domestic criticism for travelling to the U.S. rather than leading the haze crisis management in Indonesia," Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist for IHS Global Insight, said in an emailed statement.

The evacuation is expected to involve 27 ships and will mostly involve children, media reports said.

The fires, mainly on Kalimantan and Sumatra islands, have killed 10 people and more than 500,000 there have suffered respiratory infections, the country's national disaster agency, Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana (BNPB), said in a release on its website at the weekend.

The agency's spokesperson called it "an extraordinary crime against humanity."

The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), a global gauge of air quality, has been over 2,000 in Kalimantan and Sumatra, according to reports. A level between 100 and 200 indicates unhealthy air quality, while levels above 300 are considered hazardous.

The emissions from the fires exceed those from fossil fuel emissions in the U.S. on a daily basis, data from the Global Fire Emissions Database show.

A man carries a bucket of water to try to extinguish the fire on burned peatland and fields near his house at Ogan Ilir district on October 3, 2015 in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia.
Ulet Ifansasti | Getty Images
A man carries a bucket of water to try to extinguish the fire on burned peatland and fields near his house at Ogan Ilir district on October 3, 2015 in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia.

Wildlife is also suffering. The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) said via email that it has been fighting fires at several locations.

It said it took 10 days to extinguish a fire at an orangutan rehabilitation center in East Kalimantan; that blaze resulted in the destruction of 301 hectares of its 1,800 hectare area, while staff have faced mild-to-serious respiratory infections, with PSI sometimes topping 2,000, BOSF said.

"Currently, we are still trying to fight fire happening in our other program, the Mawas Conservation Program in Central Kalimantan," the organization said.

"This program manages an area of 309,861 hectares of peat land inhabited by some 3,000 wild orangutans. This is the second biggest population in Central Kalimantan. Small numbers of staff, huge area size, and remote location with very limited access has made some 15,000 hectares of our Mawas Conservation area severely damaged by fire."

The disaster has highlighted the fact Jokowi is a relatively weak president, lacking control of both his ruling coalition and his own party. It's a comedown after being swept to power a year ago on a platform promising tough reforms, including making the country more attractive to foreign investors and advancing critical infrastructure projects.

Since then, he's struggled to progress on either front. The economy is slowing, with second-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) rising around 4.7 percent, its slowest rate since 2009, during the depths of the financial crisis. Jokowi's popularity has also dropped, with research firm Indo Barometer finding that his approval rating fell from around 75 percent when he was elected to around 46 percent in October, according to a report in Today newspaper.