US drones and Indonesia-Australia relations


Indonesia has signalled its discontent with recent speculation in the Washington Post about American reconnaissance aircraft including Global Hawk drones flying from the Cocos Islands (a Australian territory located close to the Indonesian archipelago). Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Djoko Suyanto announced Indonesia had issued a protest note to the US and Australia. The move came after a day of restrained statements that only affirmed good relations with both partners and the benefit of US regional presence for regional disaster relief operations.

At first, it was unclear why Indonesia was so reserved. There was no substantial comment in major English and Indonesian language media in the days after. The Washington Post article provided only speculation about drones from the Cocos Islands rather than a concrete announcement. The protest note could be seen as commensurate with the significance Indonesia thinks it deserves. On the Australian side, Defence Minister Stephen Smith has played down the potential of such plans.

Yet in November 2011, the announcement of plans to base US Marines in Darwin was quickly met with strongly worded caution about containment of China from Indonesian military (TNI) chief, Admiral Agus Suhartono, and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. These statements seem in keeping with Indonesia’s “dynamic equilibrium” approach. In this approach, regional institutions are strengthened and no single power dominates. A statement by Indonesia reflecting this approach and balancing the interests of the US and China in the Asia Pacific would have been expected.

Another explanation is that Indonesia was waiting to produce a consolidated message. After Suhartono’s and Natalegawa’s comments, the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono softened his country’s stance in declaring the stationing plans as non-threatening, pointing to normative constraints that would prevent the use of force in the region.

Since then, a central theme in Indonesia’s reaction to US troops in Darwin has emerged: no problem. This stance was echoed by Natalegawa’s recent statements during the so-called “2+2 talks” in Australia this month and a Defence spokesperson’s comments two days ago.

This morning, international security expert, Professor Alan Dupont, had this to say:

I am 90 per cent sure the Indonesian government was blindsided on this and they are still not fully in the picture … They will look at Cocos Island, which is closer to Indonesia than Australia, and will think, good god. In Jakarta there is a well-disposed government but they will be scratching their heads and wondering where the Australians are going on this.

This view was supported by an Indonesian researcher who suggested that the TNI leadership was totally unprepared for the announcement.

Dupont goes on to argue that Australia again could be perceived as the ‘Deputy Sheriff’ of the US, a characterisation that was often used by regional leaders like Malaysia’s former Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, to discredit Australia’s Southeast Asian credentials. It is in Australia’s best interests to resist this characterisation. While we continue to deepen our military ties with the US, our engagement with the region should not be seen as an extension of US policy.

If Dupont is right, Australia is out of step with its most important regional defence partner. As Indonesian reactions to both US Marines in Darwin and drone launches from the Cocos Islands attest, Australia could do more to sell closer US-Australia ties as non-provocative. As recent public debate and statements from Australia’s political leadership suggest, we wish to draw closer to Indonesia, not further away.

The situation remains ambiguous on both sides. Yet, Smith, in playing down the Cocos Islands plan could have done more to reassure Indonesia that regional partners would be consulted in due course. While the future of drones from the Cocos Islands plan is yet to unfold, it is clear Indonesia is not happy.

Image courtesy of Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, Canberra.


Twitter Fight Club, that is. Team Security Scholar is heavily involved in this year’s TFC event, with Nat being a part of the steering committee and a competitor, and yours truly as one of the judges for the competition. You can read about my part in the event (and my judging criteria) at my personal blog, The Rogue Adventurer. For the uninitiated, check out this introductory post over at the official home of Twitter Fight Club.

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