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Home » , , , » Washington's affair with Jakarta gets serious

Washington's affair with Jakarta gets serious

Written By Voice Of Baptist Papua on February 3, 2011 | 8:48 PM

The 10-month sentences handed down last week to three Indonesian soldiers accused of torturing two Papuan civilians raises fresh questions about the professionalism of Indonesia’s military. 

In the early 1990s, after Indonesian Special Forces were filmed murdering hundreds of East Timorese in a cemetery in the town of Santa Cruz, America dramatically cut military cooperation with Jakarta in protest.  Fast forward to 2011, and security ties between the United States and Indonesia are stronger than they have been in almost two decades.

With China flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, and Indonesia resuming its traditional leadership role in South East Asia, both Washington and Jakarta are eager to prioritise security cooperation. America’s relationship with Indonesia has historically fluctuated between strategic considerations on the one hand and differences of opinion - both on Indonesia’s human rights record and America’s policies towards the Muslim world - on the other. 

With memories of Dutch colonialism fresh in his mind, Indonesia’s first President Sukarno was wary of America’s influence in the region.  Socialist in inclination, he rejected US aid and was courted by the Soviet Union and the newly proclaimed People’s Republic of China.

After seizing power in 1967- in the midst of the ideologically charged Vietnam War - Indonesia’s next president, Suharto, unilaterally cut relations with China. Deeply hostile to communism, the authoritarian and often brutal leader sought a close relationship with the United States. American and Australian governments infamously acquiesced to Suharto’s egregious human rights abuses, including the annexation of East Timor in 1975, believing that a repressive yet stable regime was preferable to allowing socialism to spread throughout South East Asia.

With the end of the Cold War, America became less inclined to tolerate Indonesia’s human rights abuses.  When Indonesian militias went on a violent rampage following the East Timorese vote for independence in 1999, the United States cut all formal military ties with Indonesia.  In 2000, Congress banned its armed forces from training with, or transferring weapons to, the Indonesian military until its human rights record improved.

Terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002 provided a catalyst for American’s re-engagement.  With Indonesia unwillingly on the front line of America’s fight against global terror, the Pentagon re-established formal military ties in 2005. Since then, ties between the two have continued to strengthen.  China is emerging as a major defence spender and a possible challenger to America’s strategic primacy in the region, and Indonesia and the US once again have a good reason to co-operate. 

Hillary Clinton included Indonesia in her first overseas trip as Secretary of State in 2009, and was followed (with much fanfare) by President Obama in November.  In 2010, despite resistance from Congress, the United States re-established ties with Indonesia’s notorious Special Forces unit Kopassus.

Yet Indonesia remains wary of becoming too reliant on the United States, either for military equipment or strategic cooperation, because it remembers being burnt in the past.

When the United States lifted a ban on arms sales to Indonesia in 2006 only 15 per cent of Indonesian naval and law enforcement ships were operable at any one time.  Indonesia’s first purchases after the embargo was lifted were spare parts to repair ageing US-supplied aircraft.

America and Indonesia are not natural allies.  While Obama was greeted with enthusiasm by crowds in Jakarta, anti-American sentiment runs deep in many parts of the Muslim-majority country.  Jakarta supported the United States in its fight against global terror, but many in Indonesia remain deeply opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, Indonesia understands America’s indispensable role in ensuring regional security.

Jakarta was quick to accept an American offer to mediate territorial disputes between China and a number of Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea.   Similarly, Indonesia successfully pressed for America to join the annual East Asia Summit.

Indonesia knows only the United States can provide an effective strategic counterweight to the rapidly growing China. However, much of the recent warming in relations has come about not because Indonesia has realised it needs America but because America has realised it needs Indonesia.

Indonesia is the largest country in Southeast Asia and the region’s only democracy.  Geographically, it straddles the busy shipping lanes between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  America wants to ensure that it keeps the emerging regional power on side.

The US administration’s response to the Papuan torture case has been fairly weak, standing in strong contrast to the pressure it exerted on Indonesia over East Timor’s independence.

Now that America sees Indonesia as a pivotal partner in Southeast Asia, this type of response will become the norm.  Strategic calculations, not human rights, will once again take precedence.

Suource Brown is a Policy Analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.  Her report Jakarta’s Juggling Act is released by the CIS today.
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