Indonesia series post #3: special forces and foreign policy (part II)

In yesterday’s post (part I), I touched on how the goals of drawing closer to Indonesia and developing counter terrorism capabilities were met by encouraging joint exercises between SASR and Kopassus, starting in 2003. In this post, I explore the trickle down effects this relationship has had on Asian Pacific partners, their respective foreign policies, and regional security.

First, SASR’s long-standing and robust engagement with Kopassus has provided a testbed for US engagement with the unit. The US has been able to observe Australia’s handling of challenges such navigating sensitivities over human rights records. For instance, in 2003 Kopassus’ commander was denied entry into Australia for a meeting on joint exercises as he was at that time still on trial for suspected human rights abuses. In retaliation, the commander in question Major General Sriyanto cancelled the visit. But times have changed.

Both units continue to work through these challenges; both Australian and Indonesian special forces commanders note the changing culture within Koapssus and the professionalism of its soldiers. The successful conduct of this engagement from 2003 until 2010, when the US lifted its ban, provided a framework for the US of how to balance a foreign policy that upholds the rule of law and human rights while maintaining defence cooperation with Indonesia.

Second, the US’ increased engagement with the Indonesian military by restoring ties with Kopassus dovetails neatly with the so-called ‘Asian pivot’ in its foreign policy. When the US lifted its ban on training and resumed full military ties from June 2010, no doubt American military planners would have consulted Australian counterparts to inform their decision. While the US is building its ties with Southeast Asian partners, Australia might play the role of an interlocutor, a role that simultaneously supports our strategic interests of maintaining the alliance and building a ‘strategic partnership’ with Indonesia.

A third effect has been Indonesia’s engagement of Chinese special forces, beginning with Exercise Sharp Knife held in June last year (the 2012 exercise has just begun). Indonesia’s history of non-alignment between great powers dictates that exercises with China provide diplomatic symmetry with exercises with the US. This gradual expansion of exercises shows Indonesia’s increasing confidence with engaging with the region, building thicker ties, and connections. And while other ASEAN states such as the Philippines have had a difficult relationship with China in recent months, Indonesia’s courtship of China is reflective of SBY’s ambition that middle states play a constructive role in regional security.

Lastly, at the recent Special Operations Forces Industry Conference held in Florida, US SOCOM chief ADM McRaven announced his ambition of creating a global special operations network. The increased engagement between Asia Pacific special forces (not to mention Australia’s engagement with other ASEAN SF units and NATO SF units in Afghanistan) provides a headstart in this regard.

And there are other countries wishing to engage with Indonesia who stand to benefit. As Australia continues to capitalise on its close relationship and experience operating with Kopassus, it might play a role in fostering engagement with international partners such as the UK and New Zealand. Both countries have not had long-standing military engagement with TNI but have shown greater interest in Indonesia; British PM David Cameron visited the country in April to promote bilateral ties and military arms sales, and a newly released report from the Asia New Zealand Foundation calls for increased engagement.

All of this is indicative of the potential that Indonesia and Australia have, as middle powers, in building stability and acting as interlocutors between larger actors in the Asia Pacific. In many ways, Australia’s continued commitment to building robust defence cooperation has brought wider dividends for all regional actors and can serve as a model for other areas of the relationship.

Image by Corporal Ricky Fuller, courtesy of Department of Defence.

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