I think a bit of context needs to be given to the ABC’s report, ‘Indonesian President vows to outgun Australia‘. Published the same day our new Defence White Paper (PDF) was released, the story’s headline made Indonesia look particularly hawkish. I’d like to offer my thoughts to clear up what Indonesia’s military modernisation is and isn’t about.
First, let’s look at the expanded version of what President SBY actually said (apologies for any errors in translation):
The Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia is non-negotiable. Our military forces must be larger and more modern than neighbouring countries, like Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, and so on. Given our vast country, the Indonesian military forces must absolutely be larger.
How do Indonesia’s police do crowd control? ‘Gangnam Style’, of course. With May Day bringing thousands of demonstrators to Indonesia’s streets protesting for better workers’ rights, Indonesian policewomen in Surabaya danced to the hit song by Psy to keep crowds happy. Well played, POLRI PR, well played.
Image credit: Agence France-Press via Jakarta Globe
Brad Nelson has a neat overview in today’s Jakarta Globe of Indonesia’s strategic options vis-à-vis China and the US. Enabled by what he calls ‘strategic flexibility’ (which I think is actually an extension of Indonesia’s so-called ‘dynamic equilibrium’ approach), Indonesia can stay neutral, pick China or the US, be a mediator/conduit or play the big kids off against one another.
Nelson rightly identifies Indonesia as attempting to pursue a ‘conduit’-type role. In fact, to be an effective conduit and exert real influence on the US and China, Nelson prescribes Indonesia build goodwill as a conflict mediator and regional problem-solver.
In theory, it’s a sensible option but I have my misgivings about how it’s presented in relatively unproblematic terms. I say this because I’m reminded of comments made at a recent workshop by a participant challenging Indonesia’s image as a neutral party in South China Sea disputes. They asked, how could Indonesia be a legitimate mediator if it refuses mediation itself on issues such as the Natuna Islands?
Here’s my latest post on The Strategist, and kudos to the executive editor for letting me keep the phrase ‘dropping the mic’.
One of the main features of the Indonesian President’s speech to last week’s Jakarta International Defense Dialogue was the concept of ‘strategic trust’. Admitting this was difficult to define, he referred to it as ‘an evolving sense of mutual confidence between nations – particularly between government and militaries’ that enables parties to work together more effectively and, more importantly, peacefully.
President SBY offered two examples from Indonesia’s own history where strategic trust has been the glue in otherwise shattered relationships: between Indonesia and East Timor (a poignant reference given East Timor’s PM Xanana Gusmão was sitting in the audience), and between the Indonesian government and GAM in Aceh. His message is that it’s something that can bring bitter enemies together very gradually over time, ‘brick by brick’, and it has to reach from top leadership to the bottom rung.
If you’re looking for an Indonesian perspective on the US pivot, check out Dewi Fortuna Anwar’s NBR and Asialink essays. Her NBR essay, in particular, sees the pivot as reversing the perception that the US neglected Southeast Asia during the Bush years. According to DFA, it was a time when ASEAN and other Asia-Pacific partners could develop new relations between themselves to manage China’s rise. But since then, as China has swung its weight around in unfavourable ways, the region (including Indonesia) is glad the US is ‘back’, so to speak.
In terms of the pivot’s substance, DFA notes Indonesia’s concern that too much emphasis on the military dimension risks stoking regional tension (something that Ashton Carter addressed in his Jakarta International Defense Dialogue speech this week). DFA explains that the Marines in Darwin are close enough to the US-owned Freeport mining operations in Papua to raise suspicions of intervention. She concedes this is highly unlikely but cites past US and Australian interference across the archipelago as the historical background for this fear.
These messages are reiterations of Indonesia’s foreign policy and strategic positions, particularly with regards to hedging great powers and promoting regional cooperation. The utility of DFA’s essays therefore is to provide Australian and American audiences with an account of Indonesia’s official perspective (she’s still, after all, Deputy Secretary for Political Affairs to the Vice President). As time goes by, and proposals like the HADR exercise between Australian-Indonesian-American forces come to fruition, there’ll be a greater indication of how the pivot has played out for Indonesia, but until then, watch this space.
I’ve just returned from a trip to Jakarta so with Indonesia on my mind, it’s a good time to share some of the recent Indonesia-related posts I’ve written on The Strategist, starting with Australia’s stated defence policy on Indonesia:
26 September, Canberra:
Australia’s leaders from both sides of politics have been paying greater attention to Indonesia; there’s been more official engagement, as well as new diplomatic and defence initiatives in the past year. And we’ve been describing Indonesia, as our Defence Minister has during his Jakarta visit last week, in more important terms like ‘strategic partner’.
But it looks like that there’s some way to go before ‘strategic partner’ becomes more than just a term of endearment. If we look at the 2009 Defence White Paper (for the time being still the government’s defence strategic policy), we find a curious ambivalence towards Indonesia. According to the White Paper, we have a ‘fundamental interest in controlling the air and sea approaches to our continent’ (paragraph 5.5). But in reference to a secure immediate neighbourhood, it says we should prevent or mitigate ‘nearby states [from] develop[ing] the capacity to undertake sustained military operations within our approaches’ (paragraph 5.8). There’s a contradiction there; as Hugh White notes in his Security Challenges essay (PDF), it may very well be those same capabilities Indonesia requires to ensure its own security in its northern approaches that could be instrumental in both Indonesia and Australia securing their strategic interests. Continue reading
Of the Defence issues raised over the past 12 months, none has been more controversial than the government’s decision to lift a ban on gender discrimination in the military which means women are eligible to serve in close combat units, including special forces.
In Australia, we value the principles equality and fairness and the right of the individual not to be discriminated on the basis of race, religion, age or gender. But there are specific challenges to applying a rights-based approach to the profession of the arms. This is because there are strong historical and cultural legacies surrounding ideas of the military, warfare and masculinity.
Historically, the military and warzones are not imagined and understood as a context for women as soldiers. Australian women appeared in support roles such as nurses, drivers, workers, mothers and later carers of returned soldiers. In this sense, gender reform is not just about enshrining the equal rights for women in the military but must, over time, break down traditional, cultural and historical understandings of warfare, the military and masculinity.
This is challenging because in the military, while the individual is important, the “group” (that is, the military) and survival of the nation and its interests are paramount. Continue reading