Fri, 22 Dec 2000

Should Indonesia consider new ties with Australia?

By Siswo Pramono

CANBERRA (JP): The recently released Australian defense white paper calls for new defense ties with Indonesia. Indonesia- Australia relations have crashed since East Timor crisis. Deep suspicion, rather than trust, is now the basis of the bilateral relationship. Should Indonesia consider the call?

Mutual distrust is acute in the relations of the two nations. Many Australians still believe that hostile forces will come from the North. Ironically, history records Australian military operations in the Indonesian archipelago, from the start of World War II until post-ballot East Timor; while the Indonesian army has never engaged in any combat with the Australian military.

After East Timor, and now facing the delicate issue of separatism in Papua, some Indonesians also believe that Australia poses a threat to Indonesia's integrity.

This is because, despite assurances from the Australian government that Irian Jaya is an integral part of Indonesia, "the battle lines over the West Papuan cause are being drawn in [Australia]" (Paul Kelly, The Australian, Nov. 1).

With mutual distrust lingering on both sides, the relations are hard to get off the ground.

The Australian defense white paper is not a panacea of this mutual distrust but rather a starting point for confidence building measures. It might be useful to see how Australia is now positioning Indonesia in the new defense policy. The defense white paper emphasizes three main issues.

The first is a slight increase in defense spending. Notwithstanding the increase, Australia would hardly threaten Indonesia or anyone else in the region because the extra defense spending of A$23.5 billion over 10 years is actually less then two percent of the gross domestic product.

Conversely, with half a million internal refugees, an acute political crisis, and the worst nightmare scenario of disintegration, it is Indonesia that poses a "threat" through the possible influx of refugees that might burden Australia.

The second is greater self-reliance. The so-called Howard Doctrine, portraying Australia as a "deputy" of the United States, earlier irritated Indonesia. But now the defense white paper assures that Australia is not becoming anyone's deputy. Australia can no longer take the U.S. for granted if a crisis developed in its vital northern approach.

East Timor is a recent example of how the U.S. abandoned Australia. Conversely, while the alliance with the U.S. remains strategically important, Australia is now unlikely to allow its ground troops to be deployed to defend U.S. interests in North Asia (e.g. to defend Taiwan against China or to defend South Korea against North Korea).

If Australia were to join U.S. maneuvers in North Asia, it would provide only diplomatic support or, at the most, some naval and aerial support. Thus, Australia is now learning to stand on its own.

The third is the restructuring of Australia's military capability. The main tasks of the Australian Defense Force are to defend the mainland and to secure its immediate neighborhood.

The white paper seems to have reconciled the contending strategies of "fortress Australia" and "forward defense" when it comes to promoting the stability of Australia's immediate neighborhood.

This neighborhood looks pretty messy with various hotspots, starting from Aceh, to Maluku, Papua, East Timor, Bougainville, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Fiji. The Indonesian archipelago provides straits for international navigation, which are vital for the life and well being of Australians.

The fact that the Indonesian archipelago now represents the sea of instability is Australia's concern. Anything that happens in Indonesia will directly affect Australia.

With its neighborhood in a state of instability, the white paper commits the Australian Defense Forces to become a mobile force capable of sustaining operations outside Australia.

The commitment will be met with an increase in the size of regular army infantry battalions to allow deployment of a brigade for extended periods.

The big procurement of early warning aircraft, 100 aircraft to replace existing F/A-18s and F-111s, as well as the upgrades for the Anzac frigates and Collins-class submarines will foster Australian military capacity to operate outside the mainland.

For Indonesia, this new commitment can be reassuring or disturbing. And the worst of it is the collapse of the 1995 Indonesia-Australia defense treaty, following Australian military involvement in East Timor.

Any military build up of one side can easily trigger suspicion and hence, insecurity of the other. However, it might be exaggerating to consider this improved Australian military muscle as a threat to Indonesia.

The improved military capacity might be useful to sustain a limited deployment in small areas such as East Timor or Bougainville, but it is not big enough to support operations in an area the size of Irian Jaya.

Thus, it would be naive to think that Australia would secure its interest in the northern neighborhood entirely through military support.

Australia knows too well that unless its relations with Indonesia are normalized, it is unlikely for Australia to enjoy maximum security in its forefront area. The white paper positions the strategic relationship with Indonesia as one of the main pillars of Australian defense strategy.

In this regard, it pledges to establish "a new defense relationship that will serve our enduring shared strategic interests".

Labor's opposition leader has signaled support for such intensified diplomatic strategy of engagement (Kim Beazley, The Sydney Morning Herald, Dec. 6). And Minister Downer has already called for renewed military ties with Indonesia.

Surely, both countries have interlocking interests in defense and security matters. Indonesia is a catalyst for the security of Australian frontage. Australia is a catalyst for the security of the eastern part of Indonesia.

One should remember that the separatist issue in Irian Jaya remains a potential obstacle for bilateral relations. As a territory bordering the South Pacific, Papua has added to the long strained relations with Jakarta by internalizing the endemic crisis of national identity.

Irian Jaya could not escape the political dynamics of the South Pacific. Papua, Bougainville, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Fiji have all experienced the vertical conflicts challenging their respective central government authorities.

There are great expectations from the Papuan secessionists that Australia and the South Pacific will help them break away from Indonesia.

Australia considers the South Pacific its strategic backyard. Irian Jaya has strong ties with the South Pacific for ethnic and geopolitical reasons.

Indonesia must consider an intensified diplomatic engagement with Australia, and hence, the South Pacific part of the solution of the Irian Jaya problem. Thus, it is timely for Indonesia to consider Australia's call for new defense ties.

The writer is a doctoral student at the department of political science, Australian National University in Canberra.