Scared of the same bogeyman? Let’s cooperate.

Jul 9, 2020

Was Indonesia alerted ahead of the PM’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan announcement? The presumption is that key people were tipped off, largely because there’s been no blow-back.

The 126-page document ignores Indonesia, though the world’s largest archipelago is a barrier between us and any real or imagined Chinese threat.

If a Red fleet starts nuclear-powering our way it has two sea-lane choices: Directly through the South China Sea where it has already established military posts, or the roundabout route. This would skirt the Philippines then through the Pacific Islands where the Middle Kingdom has been consolidating political support.

There are five mentions in the Australian plan of ‘our region’ along with four for its apparent synonym, the ill-defined ‘Indo- Pacific.’

‘ASEAN’ (seven of its ten members have disputes with China over boundaries) and ‘Southeast Asia’ don’t get guernseys.

AlthoughChina wasn’t mentioned there’s widespread acceptance that it’s the target, and the current location of any likely conflict the South China Sea. Since 1947 Beijing has claimed a U-shaped zone marked on its maps by a line of dashes down the 1,500 km long sea.

In 2016 the Philippines challenged this assumption. The Permanent Court of Arbitration sitting in The Hague found ‘no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’.’

China ignored the ruling and is reportedly continuing to fish the waters and consolidate bases around the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Meanwhile, Indonesia is also strengthening airfields and ports in its nearby Natuna Islands.

The 2006 Lombok Treaty, correctly titled the Agreement between Australia and the Republic of Indonesia on the Framework for Security Cooperation, set terms for talking. The first clause in Article Three says ‘there shall be ‘regular consultation on defence and security issues of common concern; and on their respective defence policies’.

On any reading that means Jakarta should have been told about Canberra’s plans, so it’s strange there’s been no official confirmation, if only to placate Indonesia’s hyper-nationalists.

Instead we’re getting nods and winks, like the Nine Entertainment papers hinting that ‘the upgrade in Australia’s strike capacity is likely to be quietly welcomed by our allies in the region.’

One theory for the silence is that it would mean revealing Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has been confiding with her Indonesian counterpart, Prabowo Subianto ahead of the Australian people. Necessary but distasteful to liberals.

The disgraced former general and son-in-law of second president Soeharto is not Mr Nice Guy. He fled to exile in Jordan following the 1998 fall of his former protector and after being discharged from the army for ‘misinterpreting orders’ when protesting students disappeared.

He later returned, gathered business backers and has become rich, largely through palm-oil plantations and paper mills. Last year the General Elections’ Commission reported his wealth at almost AUD 2 billion.

Subianto has long been trying for the top job, most recently last year when his Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) Party sided with radical Islamic groups. He’s reportedly still on a US visa blacklist for alleged human rights abuses in East Timor and Jakarta, making it tricky for negotiating arms deals.

Since being given his present job by President Joko Widodo to keep the aggressive opportunist out of domestic politics, Subianto has been on shopping trips to ten countries, including Russia (twice) and China, though with little luck.

According to a Bloomberg report, Washington has put pressure on Indonesia to drop an AUD 1.6 billion plan to buy 11 Sukhoi Su-35 Russian fighter jets and spend AUD 287 million on Chinese military vessels.

This is more catch up than new plans. Early last decade the administration of sixth President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) introduced its Minimum Essential Force plan to upgrade the armed forces’ hardware.

Indonesia can put almost half-a-million men and a few women into uniform, and muster a similar number of reservists, but can’t equip them well. Small arms are made locally, but the swifter, smarter whizz-bangs now being readied in the West and China can only be bought from overseas or made under licence.

Doing business with Russia and China, Indonesia’slargest trading partner, carries domestic political risks. The Communist Party has been outlawed in Indonesia since 1966, and like the PM’s references to German fascism in the 1930s, remains a bugbear to make the littlies wet themselves.

The wild-eyed reckon Widodo is a covert Pinko because so many infrastructure projects have been financed – and built – by Beijing contractors. It’s an idea as loony as the Bill Gates’ world control fantasy, though not easily dismissed as it’s often pushed by white-clad clerics.

The AUD 7.5 billion set aside by Jakarta for healthcare, social protection and economic stimulus programmes during the Covid-19 pandemic is nibbling the defence budget, now down to AUD 11.7 billion from the AUD 12.3 billion allocated earlier.

It’s difficult for laid-back Aussies to understand some think we’re a threat. But paranoid Indonesians have a list reminding that the ‘deputy sheriff of Southeast Asia’ (a line attributed to former PM John Howard) got his star from Washington.

Other remembered Irritants include our backing of East Timor’s independence referendum in 1999 (which resulted in an earlier treaty being shredded), and in 2013 getting caught eavesdropping President SBY and his wife Ani’s phones.

Also on the distrusters’ tally sheet are US marines training in Darwin, new armaments, airfield upgrades and spy-bases along our north coast and Central Australia. We say these are defensive. That’s not how they always appear to those peering south and seeing the pointy ends of weapons aimed their way.

Don’t be ridiculous, we’d say, they’ll just sail high above your 6,000 inhabited islands like Qantas heading to Singapore. You’ll rarely see contrails and never hear the thrusters. No need to get jumpy like the Japanese when Kim Jong-un tests his big rockets.

Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller writing in the Lowy’s Institute’s The Interpreter is urging ‘deft management by Australian policymakers’ in handling Indonesian concerns.

The Queensland Uni academic reminded that ‘despite growing strategic convergence, its (Canberra’s) views will not always align with those in Jakarta.

‘New and innovative modalities of cooperation with Indonesia and other regional states will need to be formulated and adequately resourced if Defence is to achieve its new strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific.’

In short – talk. And put a lot of time and effort into the job.

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