Tomahawk missiles over Indonesia? No worries, they’re only passing by

Aug 24, 2023
Tomahawk missile in-flight.

In the early 1960s, the then USSR started building missile sites in Cuba, near enough to Florida for endurance swimmers. This almost led to the Cold War turning flaming hot. Now Australia is to buy more than 200 US missiles and stage them close to Indonesia.

The Arafura Sea is too wide to swim, but the subsonic Tomahawks capable of carrying 450 kg of conventional explosives (or, Absit! nuclear warheads with vastly more destructive power) can clear the distance in under 30 minutes.

Whether fired from land or sea (RAN destroyers or submarines), they’ll most likely head north-west, atop the world’s fourth most populous nation.

We upset the neighbours in September 2021 when announcing AUKUS. The then PM Scott Morrison allegedly told President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo only after Joe Biden had spoken.

Last year PM Anthony Albanese said ‘Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is one of our most important, … ever-deepened by the strategic and economic interests that we share.’ Though not matters of defence.

Are we taking Jakarta for granted again? If so, more distrust is likely. Lowy Institute surveys show a third of Indonesians see Australia as a security threat.

Should words turn to launches, the missiles would presumably be seeking warships in the contested waters of the South China Sea, which Indonesia calls the Natuna Sea. (The Chinese mainland is beyond range).

Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy reportedly said the Tomahawks ‘would contribute to maintaining a strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific region’. Courtesy of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, Conroy added: ‘Only by deterrence can we promote strategic balance in our region and promote peace and stability as well.’

This isn’t just a $1.3 billion trade deal. The US State Department reckons the sale is ‘vital to the US national interest to assist our ally in developing and maintaining a strong and ready self-defence capability’. If so, why does Australia have to buy?

The other nations with Tomahawks are the UK and Japan.

Last month Australia’s mainstream media got in a tizz when aerial photos showed a RAAF Poseidon flying over a Chinese surveillance ship heading towards Queensland. This was headlined as an ‘encounter’ though other reports used the less-provocative terms ‘spotted’ and ‘sighted.’

The ABC reported a ‘spy ship monitoring joint military exercises (Talisman Sabre war games) with the US’. There have been no reports of Chinese sailors doing anything more aggressive than peering over satellite feeds and squinting through binoculars from outside our territorial waters.

That didn’t stop Defence officials implying this was something decent folks don’t do, describing the watching as an ‘unfriendly and provocative act’.

A useful phrase for Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to use should the Republic’s citizens spot killer missiles streaking above their archipelago.

Another reason for the absence of angry statements and ambassador recalls is because Indonesian politicians have their eyes on the ground, specifically the 2024 general and presidential elections.

Foreign affairs just smoulder on the edges of the campaign where the primary heat sources are domestic issues.

Before being made the first woman Foreign Minister in 2014, Retno was ambassador to the Netherlands where she’d earlier been a student. Her President has shown little interest in her portfolio, so she’s largely been left alone.

Three big issues she’s faced and failed to either resolve or make any impression remain – Myanmar, the South China Sea disputes and AUKUS.

Less than six months from the February poll there’s negligible speculation about the FM’s replacement. In the Indonesian system, ministerial appointments can be made from civil society. Retno, 60, is a career diplomat. She’s declined repeated requests for an interview.

Soon after her appointment she spoke out against academic charges of Indonesia’s ‘narrow nationalist-tinged discontinuity and unpredictability in foreign policy’.

She responded that ‘Indonesia is recognised by outsiders for its successes in democracy, development and stability.’ But no mention of pacts and accords with other nations because of the policy of non-interference.

As an aside, Indonesia now has many more toll roads, ports and airfields, and is economically stable. But the boast about democracy is hollow. The US Journal of Democracy reported that:

‘Under (Jokowi’s) tenure, free elections have been threatened, civil liberties have declined, corruption fighters and legislative checks weakened, and the armed forces’ role in civilian affairs has grown.’

After Morrison called his counterpart to say, ‘BTW something I meant to mention …’, Jokowi was reported as ‘repeatedly and forcefully’ raising concerns with the then-PM.

Retno added her country ‘was worried about the increasing tension between major countries …and the possibility of a cold war. What we all don’t want is the possibility of an increasing arms race and power projection in the region.’

But that’s what’s happening with the Tomahawks. So far any outrage has been contained. To add to the puzzlement Jokowi neutered his FM courtesy of the New Straits Times:

‘We should view the Quad and AUKUS as partners, and not competitors … ASEAN aims to make the region a stable and peaceful one.’

(The Quad is a security talkfest that doesn’t involve Indonesia. It started in 2007, was killed off a year later by PM Kevin Rudd, and was reborn in 2017. Members are Australia, the US, India and Japan.)

A decade ago PM Julia Gillard released the White Paper Australia in the Asian Century. It stressed that Australia’s ‘future prosperity and security are inextricably linked to what happens in the region’.

That was then. What happens now in the region is being determined in another hemisphere. As veteran journalist John Pilger, 83, has written:

‘In my lifetime, the US has overthrown or attempted to overthrow more than 50 governments, mostly democracies. It has interfered in democratic elections in 30 countries.’

Indonesia’s next President and FM might want to ask some tougher questions about AUKUS, Tomahawks and whatever is next on Australia’s Washington shopping list.

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