Fri, 24 Nov 2000

Downturn in Indonesian-U.S. relations?

The following is the first of two articles based on a presentation given at a discussion on ties between Indonesia and the U.S., by Prof. Dr. Hasjim Djalal, M.A.. He has been Ambassador-at-Large for the Law of the Sea/Maritime Affairs since 1994 and teaches international law and relations at Padjadjaran University, Bandung. The discussion was organized by the Golkar party on Nov. 1 in Jakarta.

JAKARTA: Many Indonesians perceive that Indonesian-U.S. relations are experiencing a downturn -- notwithstanding the fact that both countries would surely still like to have good or even better relations.

Geostrategically speaking, especially in maritime issues, Indonesia is important to the U.S. Indonesia lies between two major continents, Asia and Australia, and between two major oceans, the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. It also controls some of the major shipping routes essential for the U.S., especially in terms of commercial and naval requirements.

Together with Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesia controls the closest routes between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, and together with other littoral countries, Indonesia plays a significant role in maintaining the stability and safety of navigation and communications through the South China Sea.

Moreover, Indonesia also controls the strategic waterways between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean through the Straits of Karimata and Sunda. With the Philippines, Indonesia also maintains a significant role in the Celebes Sea, an important waterway for submarine access from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean.

Perhaps most importantly for the U.S. is the deep water seas in Indonesia's eastern waters, particularly the Maluku sea, the Banda sea, the Ceram sea, the Straits of Ombai and Wetar, the Sawu sea, and many other important routes in the area.

Deep water navigational communication through the archipelago has been extremely important for the U.S. mainly given its interests in protecting oil and energy resources in the Gulf states.

The U.S. has also several major military and naval bases in the Pacific Ocean, such as in Honolulu, Guam, Okinawa, and Yokosuka in Japan, and in the Indian Ocean, particularly on Diego Garcia. The routes through Indonesian waters have become more significant for the U.S. especially since it abandoned its Clark air base and Subic naval base in the Philippines.

Lately, China has emerged as one of the potential threats to U.S. naval supremacy in the Pacific.

Since modernization began with the Deng Xiaoping regime some 20 years ago, China has developed fishing capacity not only in the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, but all the way to the North Atlantic. It has also developed missile capabilities that could reach significant and distant places in the Pacific Ocean.

In this geostrategic set-up, Japan seems to be able to little. It is constrained by a Constitution that allows only defensive forces and prohibits the Japanese Defense Force from operating more than 1000 miles from Tokyo Bay.

Japan cannot operate in the South China Sea or in the waters of Southeast Asia, which are very important for its political, economic and strategic security. Three main reasons: More than 80 percent of Japan's energy sources come through the South China Sea and the waters of Southeast Asia; a large part of its investments lie in Southeast Asia; and its significant economic and trade ties with Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.

While political and strategic relations in Northeast Asia have lately being showing improvement, the long-term perspective in the equation of powers in the region is still a big question mark. This is especially so in view of the uncertainties concerning the future of Russia and the role that it could play in the region.

The importance of Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, should thus become augmented, not only because of this geomaritime strategy but also because it is the world's fourth most populous country, the largest and most strategically located archipelagic country, with the largest population of Muslims and very rich in natural resources.

The U.S. must ensure that Southeast Asia remains friendly and stable so that its strategic interests in the area and in the Pacific and the Indian Oceans can be protected.

The Straits Times on Oct. 6 reported that the U.S. is considering the relocation of some of its forces in Northeast Asia to Northern Australia. Australia has always been one of the closest allies of the U.S. in Asia, particularly in the Southern hemisphere.

If and when the U.S. does move some of its strategic forces to Australia, the significance of Southeast Asia, mainly Indonesia, to the U.S., will increase. Relations between the U.S. and Australia on the one hand and the Southeast Asian countries on the other could become even more sensitive.

Indonesia would become much more intertwined with the strategic interests of the U.S., because the safety of its lines of air and sea communications would be protected not only from its bases in the Western and Northern Pacific but also from Australia. Indonesia would then be "sandwiched" on all sides by the U.S. forces and its allies.

Herein lies the significance of recent developments in the eastern parts of Indonesia. Given the fact that Indonesia could not prevent East Timor's separation, the latter could become closer to Australia than to Indonesia in many respects.

While East Timor may have become "independent" from Indonesia, it may yet become "dependent" on Australia, also given that the political elite in East Timor think that Australia is their "savior". Economically, East Timor may become more closely linked to Northern Australia than to West Timor.

The Far Eastern Economic Review reported in its Aug. 21 edition that Darwin and Northern Australia have taken great economic and trade benefits from East Timor.

The United Nations Transitional Authority for East Timor (UNTAET) is even planning to make Northern Australia, particularly Darwin, a new gateway from Australia to Asia.

Northern Australia, the magazine reported, gained $235 million from UNTAET expenditure in East Timor. Northern Australia is constructing a 1,400-kilometer long railway link between Darwin and Alice Springs. Estimated at $700 million, it is to be completed before 2003.

East Timor may simply become a beachhead for Australian strategic interests in the vast archipelago and, in particular, the waters of the eastern parts; especially since Australia over the last five years has conducted its long-term relocation of military bases to Northern Australia, closer to the eastern parts of Indonesia.

The twin strategic interests of Australia with regard to Indonesia are (1) to ensure the seas and airspace between Indonesia and Australia remain open and safe for Australia and that (2) that the sea and air approaches to Australia through the archipelago remain open and accessible to Australia.

Australia, perhaps with the U.S. in tow, will pay more attention to the eastern parts of Indonesia, which may have an unpredictable effect on Indonesian unity, given the current situation in Irian Jaya and the Maluku islands.

Indonesia could benefit from this potentially increased attention from the U.S. and Australia towards the eastern parts of the country -- lack of attention to these areas could lead to severe problems with regard to Indonesia's future national integration.

The policy of resettling refugees, therefore, poses a potential problem, with planned relocation sites being in Wetar and perhaps also the Buru Islands. Wetar Island is north of the Wetar Strait, one of the most strategic deep water routes for submarines, with the Ombai Strait to the west, the Letti Strait to the east, while to the north is the Banda Sea, all the way to Buru Island.

All these waters have been the "playground" and routes of foreign submarines. The Wetarese could easily become a minority on their own island -- which could be a "time bomb" for Indonesia.

The U.S. lies thousands of miles across the biggest ocean in the world. Even the small Indonesian navy and air force will still be highly dependent upon the U.S., especially in terms of equipment, technology and even spare-parts. The strategic relations between the two countries are grossly imbalanced in favor of the U.S.

Trying to compete with the US in a military build-up would be useless; so would notions of building up coalitions with potential adversaries or its enemies. This would also counter the traditional Indonesian philosophy of not supporting military alliances.

The best way to protect Indonesia's interests in such an unstable environment would be to make it a policy to develop and create an atmosphere of peace, stability and cooperation in Indonesia and in Southeast Asia.

This would ensure that there was no need for the U.S. to interfere in national and regional affairs so as to protect its interests.