U.S. aims clear in embrace of Jakarta

U.S. aims clear in embrace of Jakarta

THE US decision to upgrade its security relationship with Indonesia is another sign of a strategic shift in its policy towards the region.
The Australian, 10 August 2010


The US is looking to broaden and deepen its relationships in Asia in order to share the burden of hedging against China's growth.

The Obama administration entered office in 2008 with the aim of distancing itself from the roughshod diplomacy of the Bush years, favouring multilateralism over militarism. Olive branches were extended to allies and antagonists alike. But US foreign policy has gradually become more selective about whom it makes friends with. The decision to re-establish links with Kopassus, the Indonesian special forces unit that has been implicated for past human rights abuses in East Timor, Aceh and Papua, is indicative of this shift. It seems that strategic imperatives won out in White House discussions about whether the group had genuinely rid itself of bad apples.

The growing influence and assertiveness of China's regional diplomacy is coaxing the US and Indonesia into a warmer embrace. The Kopassus decision complements the recent US-Indonesia Defence Framework Arrangement that lays the foundations for increased co-operation in military training, defence procurement and maritime security.

The US and China have been jockeying for influence over the waterways of Southeast Asia through offers of military assistance. And Indonesia has been part of this tug-of-war. Having returned empty-handed from recent window shopping trips to Russia for jet fighters and to China for missiles, it is now talking with the US about the procurement of surplus US air force F-16 fighters and C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.

Indonesia has also found itself embroiled in maritime disputes in the South China Sea. In June, a Chinese fishery administration vessel, warned to leave the area by an Indonesian navy ship, threatened to attack unless a Chinese fishing boat caught in Indonesia's EEZ was released.

Last week, in a provocative show of force, three Chinese naval fleets conducted live-fire exercises in disputed waters. This betrays the spirit of the 2002 Sino-ASEAN agreement to exercise restraint in territorial spats. China has taken a cautious approach to the South China Sea in recent years, but its ambitions are far-reaching and recent developments make it clear that its patience limited.

Beijing recently upgraded the status of its claims in the sea to a "core interest", putting it in the same category as other non-negotiables Taiwan and Tibet. This prompted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's to put US cards on the table, declaring that a stable South China Sea was a key national interest. Obama's conciliatory approach towards China is beginning to harden. This is a development welcomed in Jakarta. Indonesia is hoping that the US will help mediate its standoff with China, Malaysia, The Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan about overlapping claims to the Spratly and Paracel Islands. In July, Indonesian Defence Ministry spokesman I Wayan Midi stated that the US was entitled to "play a role (in the South China Sea) because stability in the region is the responsibility of more than just the surrounding countries."

Judging by Indonesia's reaction, Beijing has clearly committed a diplomatic blunder. Its declaration of "indisputable" sovereignty over the entire 3.3 million square kilometre waterway will only encourage other claimants and those irked by China's behaviour to line up behind the US. This plays into Washington's hands as it looks to diversify its strategic portfolio in Asia. Indonesia does not support containing China. President Yudhoyono aspires to "having no enemies and 1000 friends". Leaning too heavily against China would jeopardise Indonesia's role as an honest broker in regional disputes, as would leaning too lightly.

Instead, Indonesia and its neighbours see an ongoing role for the US in balancing regional security arrangements. In the schoolyard of international relations, powerful friendships can help discourage the browbeating habits of local bullies. An engaged US is welcome news for Australia too. Southeast Asia is our strategic depth, providing us with a buffer from the Northeast. It is in our interests that regional states have the capability to deter attempts by one state to settle disputes by force of arms.

The security environment in our region is changing dramatically just as the long-term fiscal outlook for the US grows dim. If Washington wants to maintain primacy, it will need to do more with less. Given the difficulty of this task, the days of Uncle Sam going it alone are most likely over: asking others to share the risks and costs of a new strategic era will be of central importance.

Simon Smith is a research analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The views expressed here are his own.