Facts sacred, pacts not

Jul 11, 2024
Yogyakarta, Indonesia, October 2, 2023 : Indonesian army standing in a row for morning assembly in the city road

It’s a hoary oldie publicity hook: Imagine something improbable, then feed off the controversy.

Launching a balloon’s a common tactic in domestic politics to see what might distract voters, but here we’re talking about Indonesia and the big chessboard.

Foreign affairs is a discipline so multi-layered that even expert writers know their imagination will rarely blow hard enough to get their toy airborne. No matter – they’ll get a reputation for innovative thinking.

Sam Roggeveen is director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program. A former Office of National Assessments senior analyst, he has credibility and a go-to reputation.

In his latest Australian Foreign Affairs essay (The Jakarta Option) that costs $25 to read, he argues that an Australia-Indonesia alliance is “necessary”. Really?

The Interpreter website he founded spruiks the long write and a weird notion – that we’re lucky to have Indonesia as a neighbour and that relations could have been worse. That’s an assumption impossible to test.

Why now? Having a cashiered former general reinstated and promoted to four stars taking over the Republic from a civilian in October will mean seismic policy shifts.

But the coming avalanche doesn’t stir Roggeveen’s prose. Curiously absent is any reference to the president-elect, the ultra-nationalist Prabowo Subianto who’ll be shaking up Indonesia.

The author ponders possible alliances with Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines – rejecting Japan as too distant.

So to stop US-China rivalry in the region – a most worthy ambition – he settles on Indonesia ”to move military matters to the background of regional relations”. Possible?

No, Sir. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get to know each other better using trade, tourism, education and all other means apart from sharing the killing of strangers.

Hands are for shaking, not gripping an AK-47. Fingers are for picking noses, not squeezing triggers.

This old joke is apt. One man tells his mate: “You see that guy? I hate him.” The friend asks: “Why? You don’t know him.” The response: “That’s why I hate him.”

Here’s Melbourne University Law Professor Tim Lindsey and colleague Dave McRae:

“There are no two neighbouring countries anywhere in the world that are more different than Indonesia and Australia. They differ hugely in religion, language, culture, history, geography, race, economics, worldview and population.”

Indonesia has about 400,000 men and 30,000 women in uniform, and an equal number of reservists. About 88 per cent of the general population are Muslims so a similar figure among the forces is likely.

Australia’s figures are 57,000 and 32,000, faiths unknown. It seems crazy that anyone might think we have invasion ambitions, but like uranium the residue of colonialism has a long life.

One survey showed a third of Indonesians see Australia as a security threat, hardly the basis for an alliance. Meanwhile, we worry about Islamophobia.

John Howard’s reported brag in 2000 that we’re “America’s deputy sheriff” hasn’t been forgotten.

Roggeveen reckons that because our neighbour is a growing economic power that’s “successfully negotiated a remarkable transition to democracy” (a claim worth challenging with more space), we should march together to dissuade threats.

Conspiracy theorists would see a pact as a plot to make Indonesians front-line fodder in any East-West war. The author concedes that “Jakarta is often prickly. There’s been tumult and tragedy”.

Indeed. In 1965 the army organised militias to slaughter maybe half a million citizens in a purge against real or imagined Communists, a genocide irrefutably exposed by Australian academic Dr Jess Melvin.

The most recent crimes include allegations of prisoner torture in shuttered Papua where thousands of well-armed troops are failing to quell tribal dissidents and rescue a NZ pilot taken hostage in early 2023.

This month it’s alleged that soldiers killed a Sumatran journalist and his family for exposing officers’ gambling. Roggeveen tries to sidestep these issues by arguing any pact would only involve the Navy and Air Force.

Impossible. They’re all together in the Tentara (armed forces) Nasional Indonesia (TNI) with overall leadership often rotated through the services.

The Republic is mightily hostile to pacts, stressing its “golden mean mendayung antara dua karang (rowing between two reefs) principle:

“Indonesia’s foreign policy is independent and active …because Indonesia does not side with world powers.”

Roggeveen claims that a “wealthy Indonesia engaged in a close military partnership with Australia would be a major security asset for Canberra.”

Maybe for the hawks, though not the doves as human rights activists would alert the public to Prabowo’s troubled past and his alleged threats to democracy.

The world’s fourth largest nation (after India, China and the US) is critically positioned at the end of the South China Sea, so of strategic interest to the PRC and the US.

Both have been wooing Indonesia to get onside. So far China is ahead; that doesn’t mean a forthcoming marriage but there’s been more bromance than hostility.

Since being first elected in 2014 Jokowi has met Xi Jinping eight times, but Donald Trump and Joe Biden half that number.

The New York Times reported former Trade and Investment Minister Tom Lembong: “Many Indonesian business and political elites believe China is the relevant superpower and the US is in relative decline — and, geographically, far away”.

Prabowo, who is in business and politics, went to Beijing after winning this year’s February election though not to Washington. For many years he was banned from the US (where he got military training) and Australia for alleged human rights abuses.

If Prabowo returns the last century dwi fungsi (two functions) system of the military commanding the police, and puts retired generals into running the public services, a military dictatorship will evolve.

Then the “militarist fantasy” of the ADF working with the TNI would vanish.

Writing on foreign affairs is largely dreaming aloud, so let’s try a nightmare: Should the US help Taipei if Beijing attacked, Canberra might send a gunboat.

In a world of few certainties here’s one: There’d be no Indonesians among the crew.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!