In Brief: Singapore’s Formidable class frigates

N.R. Jenzen-Jones
The Republic of Singapore frigate RSS Formidable (68) during a formation exercise for RIMPAC 2012.

Singapore’s Formidable class frigates are considered amongst the most advanced surface combatants in Southeast Asia. Built around a substantially modified version of the French La Fayette class, they feature an advanced stealth design incorporating a range of Radar Cross-Section (RCS) reduction features. The inclined planes of the hull and superstructures, concealment of typical ship’s equipment, low profile housings for armaments, and enclosed sensor mast are chief amongst these. The Formidable class armament includes: an Oto Melara 76mm Super Rapid naval gun, 8x RGM-84C Harpoon SSMs, and 4x 8-cell Sylver A50 VLS containing a mixture of Aster 15 and Aster 30 SAMs. The ships are also capable of firing EuroTorp A224/S Mod 3 torpedoes, and carry a Sikorsky S-70B naval helicopter with ASW equipment (they formerly operated Eurocopter AS-332M Super Pumas).

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Indonesia series post #2: Insight into Indonesia’s President SBY

Unfortunately, the Indonesian President’s speech at the State Dinner in his honour last night was cut short as the ABC News 24 lacked Indonesian translators. In absence of that speech, here are some recent yet important speeches that provide some insight into his sentiments about Australia and about Indonesia’s place in the Asian Century.

Speech delivered to the Australian Parliament, Canberra, 10 March 2010, available here.

  • Shorter SBY: Australia and Indonesia have a strong relationship as friends, neighbours and strategic partners. Both countries should work together as equal stakeholders in a common future, overcome stereotypes and tap into potential of the relationship.
  • Memorable moments: SBY paying respects to Australians who died during humanitarian operations in Indonesia, praising early Australian support for Indonesian independence, and using the words “fair dinkum”.

Keynote Address to IISS Asia Security Summit, Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, 1 June 2012, available here.

  • Shorter SBY: Asia Pacific requires more durable security architecture achieved by “dynamic regionalism” and a sense of Asian Pacific community. Middle and small states should work to ensure relations between major powers are stable and peaceful.
  • Indonesia’s increased defence spending to be used for increasing capacity to protect borders, to counter transnational threats, to increase its contribution to peace-keeping operations worldwide, to be better prepared for military operations other than war, and to conduct special operations.
  • Memorable moments: SBY using the words “win-win strategic culture”, citing the successful rescue of Indonesian hostages from Somali pirates by the navy and special forces, and being super optimistic.

Speech ‘The Development of Asia-Pacific Geopolitics in the 21st Century and the Effect on Indonesia’ to TNI and POLRI Officer Candidate School, Bandung, 29 June 2012, excerpts here and here (in Indonesian):

  • Shorter SBY: Strong and sustainable peace in the region is achievable. Transparency in increasing military capability and confidence building measures are essential in preventing mistrust between states. Indonesia will continue to build comprehensive partnerships and conduct constructive diplomacy in the region.
  • Memorable moments: SBY losing his cool and berating students in the front row for falling asleep.

Overall, these speeches represent a determination on behalf of SBY to engage with the region and really promote Indonesia’s burgeoning presence in regional and international terms.

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.

Australia-Malaysia relations: Mahathir’s ghost

This post originally appeared on the Lowy Institute’s blog The Interpreter and The Diplomat’s ASEAN Beat.

Just to be clear, Dr Mahathir Mohamad is not dead. In fact, the infamously direct style and strident anti-Westernism of the former Malaysian Prime Minister, lives on through current leader Najib Razak.

During his visit to Australia earlier this month, Najib’s rebuff of Prime Minister Gillard’s proposal for an offshore asylum-seeker processing centre in East Timor, showed hints of the former leader’s ambivalence towards Australia and its approach to the region.

During his 22 years at Malaysia’s helm, Mahathir made Australia his ‘whipping boy’. He rebuked Canberra for its colonial heritage and role as America’s deputy sheriff, stoking Malaysian pride and scoring strategic points in the process.

While the overall bilateral relationship was steady, in the background, Mahathir never shied away from publicly undermining Australian initiatives, often straining relations in the process. His notorious snubbing of the 1993 APEC summit, led then-PM Paul Keating to label him ‘recalcitrant’.

Two Malaysian leaders later, Najib invokes Mahathir’s tradition of public posturing in relation to Australia, albeit in a more muted tone. In response to questions about the East Timor processing centre, the Malaysian PM was lukewarm, at best. He explained that his country needed more time to consider the proposal and was firm that further discussion on the matter take place at the Bali summit on people smuggling, held this week.

In what could have been a proud moment celebrating Australian resourcefulness in promoting a regional solution, Australia found itself in the awkward situation of Malaysia basking in having called the shots.

In practical terms, Najib was right to ask for more time. For one, costs have not been provided. Also, it is now clear that Gillard did not circulate the idea before its announcement; the mixed reception from regional partners is telling in this regard. East Timor was briefed six months after Gillard launched the processing centre idea, in her Lowy Institute speech. This incident should give Australia a wake-up call to manage regional issues more carefully.

Moreover, Australia’s dithering on its processing centre plans, has allowed Malaysia to manoeuvre into a more favourable bargaining position. During his visit, Najib talked up Malaysia’s contribution to combating people smuggling via increased naval interdictions of SIEV suspected of heading to Australian shores.

He then proposed that Australia provide more resources to ‘front line countries like Malaysia’ to disrupt people smugglers. ‘Perhaps giving us more equipment, for example, more sophisticated equipment could help us increase our capacity’, Najib added. Add to the mix speculation of an election this year in Malaysia, and the effect is pronounced: Najib is scoring points using old tricks.

So, while the heydays of fiery Mahathir-Keating exchanges may be behind us, Malaysia’s recent capitalisation on Australia’s awkward decision-making on regional issues, suggests we haven’t seen the last of Mahathirism yet.

Photo courtesy of blog Mahathir Mohamed.

NATO-ASEAN relations: let’s get serious for a moment

A few weeks ago I attended a presentation by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero during his recent visit to Australia. At its essence, his presentation “NATO in a Globalised World” at ANU (podcast here) was an opportunity to present NATO’s new Strategic Concept (PDF) and elaborate its components to an audience of strategic and foreign policy scholars and students.

With the next day’s headline “NATO wants closer links with Asia-Pacific”, one could be forgiven for thinking that in the course of his speech, he had heralded a new relationship with Asian states. And yet, in the course of articulating NATO’s perception of the 21st century security terrain and its response, his Excellency made only fleeting references to Southeast Asia as one of several “hotbeds for organised crime, … trafficking of people, weapons and narcotics” and also terrorist threats from groups such as al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah.

Why should this matter? Because the Ambassador’s repeated mentions of not only the interconnectedness of security threats and the related requirement for “cooperative security” but also the current context of severe constraints to NATO member states’ defence spending places it squarely within the purview of NATO’s articulated strategic interests. The dual emphasis on closer cooperation and spending pragmatism served as suitable grounds for opening greater partnerships with Southeast Asian states. The degree to which NATO engages Southeast Asia is another matter; one that should be determined by the extent to which common security issues between the groupings are of strategic priority.

If Southeast Asia is a region of fragile states and, in NATO’s assessment, susceptible to be a hotbed for terrorist threats, it follows that preventive measures such as engaging ASEAN more actively are warranted. Under article 30 of the new Strategic Concept, NATO will enhance partnerships through political dialogue, practical cooperation, and consultation on issues of common concern. Albeit an extreme example, given the quandary in which NATO has found itself  in Afghanistan on the grounds of denying international terrorists safe havens, it may be prudent to foster a framework of cooperation with ASEAN now.

While relations with NATO could potentially develop bilaterally, on transnational issues such as terrorism and piracy that concern more sensitive issues like sovereignty, it would be best to encourage a ‘softly softly’ consensus approach in line with the so-called ‘ASEAN way’. There are a number of other security issues on which NATO and ASEAN could find common ground; for one, whither the changing geo-strategic environment in light of China’s rise?

I argue that NATO-ASEAN meetings are a more appropriate forum for handling security threats than the more established Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). ASEM is a 45-member forum that handles political matters, security and the economy, and education and culture; such a broad agenda between so many members is unlikely to reach substantial progress on more difficult questions of security cooperation. Although there were sessions on piracy at sea and counter-terrorism at the 2010 ASEM summit, it is doubtful that practical outcomes and progress on substantive issues were achieved (for interested readers, you can find the respective piracy and counter-terrorism concept papers (PDF) here and here).

Lastly, my friend Raoul Heinrichs suggested to me that perhaps historical ambivalence between NATO and SEATO (ASEAN’s de facto predecessor) could play into the reluctance of NATO to engage the grouping. However, it seems to me that, whatever the case, historical ambivalence or not, if NATO is serious not only about putting the rhetoric of cooperative security into practice but also achieving its goals in the context of fiscal restraint, it should be thinking about ASEAN in a much more explicit manner.

Readers, over to you.