DUNCAN GRAHAM.The pachyderm on the patio

Feb 25, 2020

Kupang is at the bottom of West Timor. It’s the largest city in far eastern Indonesia. Imagine how Canberra would react if Jakarta allowed the People’s Liberation Army Air Force to station their armed jets just 830 km northeast of Darwin.

That’s an unlikely scenario unless the Indonesian Constitution banning overseas bases in the Republic is amended. But even the few Australophiles dotted around the archipelago of strident nationalism must be asking: What’s afoot? Do our Oz neighbors see us as a threat?

The 2016 Defence White Paper reasoned there was only a remote chance of a foreign invasion. So why the current wariness? It’s the question few ask and fewer answer.

The announcement that Tindal airfield near Katherine will get a $1.6 billion upgrade to bond with the United States’ military came after Indonesian President Joko Widodo left Australia this month. During his two-day visit he addressed Federal Parliament:

‘As democratic and diverse countries, we must work hard, side by side, standing together to defend the values of democracy, tolerance and diversity and to prevent the world having a clash of civilisations.’

No mention of the military or defence, apart from noting that 40 army engineers and disaster managers had hurried to help with the bushfire crisis.

So far there’s been no sign Widodo was briefed about the Tindal decision which was welcomed by the Labor Opposition. The mainstream media gave drumroll support with boys’ toys jargon aplenty. Here’s Channel 7’s report:

The improvements will include major runway extensions to accelerate the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter rollout, fuel stockpiles and engineering to support large aircraft like US Air Force B-52 strategic bombers and RAAF KC-30 air-to-air refuellers.

‘(These) will boost the capacity of the RAAF and US Air Force to conduct joint operations and training exercises over larger areas in the Indo-Pacific.’

Areas? The biggest is Indonesia (five million square kilometers of land and sea), but doesn’t get named. It’s the pachyderm on the patio.

The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan thinks the spending is ‘much more than getting ready for the new Joint Strike Fighter F-35 fifth-generation multipurpose jets that will be the spine of our air combat capability.

‘The Tyndal (sic) upgrade is a key step in the progressive rollout of the US’s commitment to Australia and our theatre.”

Our theatre? The biggest player in the region with the largest stage and 270 million performers is Indonesia.

Former intelligence chief Paul Dibb wants more than bombers. He’s reportedly keen on land-based missiles for their ‘credible long-range strike capability’.

Programmed to hit what targets? If the threat that dare not speak its name is China, invasions and repulsions would be through or over Indonesia. The Japanese had to first seize the then Dutch East Indies in 1942 to send bombers southwards. While a flank attack through the Pacific Islands is possible, the likelihood excites few strategists.

Tindal is part of Australia’s northern muscle. In 2011 the Gillard government allowed up to 2,500 US marines to be trained in the NT staying for six months at a time.

The agreement fixes the rotation for the next two decades. Foreign troops on Indonesian soil are a no-no. In Australia they’re a yes-yes.

It’s not just about guns on the ground and in the air. Two years ago US Vice President Mike Pence revealed his country and ours will develop the Lombrum naval base on PNG’s Manus Island to put more warships into the region.

The region? The deal involves Japan, but apparently not Indonesia. Manus is 700 km east of Jayapura, the capital of the Indonesian province of Papua. Tokyo is 4,260 km north.

At the time Dr Evan Laksmana, a senior researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, was one of the few wondering: If the tactic was to head off China’s ambitions in Southeast Asia, why had Indonesia been ignored ‘almost entirely’?

In the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter he wrote that ‘… engaging Indonesia should be part of the process.

While the process of infrastructure building and force restructuring might take several years, the TNI (Indonesian military) is set to ‘rebalance’ its forces from the western to the eastern part of Indonesia.

‘Indonesia-Australia defence cooperation has increased markedly in recent years. But Australian strategic planning should not assume passive neutrality on the part of Indonesia in thinking about a future regional conflict.’

There’s a lengthy history of fear about Indonesia. In 1963 during the Vietnam War when first president Soekarno was snuggling close to Communism, Australia ordered 24 F-111 fighter bombers. It was reported they could carry enough fuel to hit Jakarta and return to Darwin – a round trip of 5,400 km.

By the time they were delivered a decade late, Soekarno was dead and the capitalist General Soeharto in charge and nuzzling up to the West. The F-111s were never used in combat and retired in 2010.

The B52s that will be using Tindal have a range of 14,000 km.

In 2018 the ABC quoted the US Commanding Officer in Darwin Colonel Russ Boyce saying the marines had enough expertise and equipment to respond if a conflict arose near the Top End capital during the rotation:

‘Of course, units that are forward deployed across the Indo-Pacific are there for purposes of security and stability.’

Does that policy include Indonesia?  If we’re not ‘side by side, standing together’ as Widodo says, crazies on both sides of the Arafura Sea will get ample space to upgrade their xenophobia and launch long-range conspiracy theories.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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