Australia’s Indonesia Headache

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Australia’s Indonesia Headache

Canberra shouldn’t be surprised by Indonesia’s quest for US military hardware. But how will it balance Jakarta?

An Indonesian corruption watchdog has revealed more than MP travel junkets while examining the extensive globe-trotting of members of the country's House of Representatives.

The Indonesian NGO Fitras call for greater budget transparency has forced members of the Indonesian Parliament's Commission 1, which oversees defence, foreign affairs and intelligence matters, to explain publicly the justification for their six-day trip to the United States in May. As a result, the delegation's 'core agenda' in Washington — to secure F-16A/B Fighting Falcons and other US military equipment sales to the TNI — has now found its way into the public arena.

The sale of second-rate air combat capability isn't a concern, but the visit does mark a milestone in an expanding military relationship. A serious boost of diplomatic enthusiasm from the Obama Administration and Indonesia's growing appetite for war-fighting equipment combine to present a difficult prospect for Australia.

If Canberra feels surprised by Jakarta's hot pursuit of US military capability so soon after Obama signed the bilateral Comprehensive Partnership Agreement in November 2010, it shouldn't. The 1999 US Congress decision to freeze military-to-military relations has been thawing for some time. Since 2001, US security assistance to Indonesia has steadily expanded as a result of cooperation on counter-terrorism and anti-piracy, disaster response and UN peacekeeping.

Indonesia's democratic transformation and attempts to improve its human rights record has done much to remove the TNI (Indonesia's defence force) as a thorn in the relationship. The 2010 renewal of US military relations with Kopassus, Indonesia's Special Forces, was the latest demonstration of significant US re-engagement. Reopening the US arms markets to Indonesia is a natural next step in maturing military-to-military relations.

As a rising diplomatic and economic power, Indonesia is naturally inclined to seek to increase its regional influence by pursuing US weapons. Jakarta is likely to pursue the issue of expanded military sales as a key test of Washington's commitment to implementing the CPA. The Indonesian Air Force's unsightly combination of British, US, Russian and Chinese capability is a logical place to start.

With Indonesia as head of ASEAN this year, the United States is unlikely to hold back on reasonable requests, and has its own reasons to want major arms sale channels re-established. Washington is conscious of Indonesia's pivotal role in the region and its ability to influence US grand strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Indonesia's economic success and heightened regional status makes it a critical relationship for Washington to develop as it attempts to make inroads into regional diplomatic institutions.

So Canberra should prepare itself for the prospect of expanded US military sales to Indonesia. Although the sale of F-16A/Bs to Indonesia would not be cause for alarm, it raises important questions about where exactly Australia stands in support of sustained US investment in Indonesian military capabilities.

Fostering cooperative security relations between the United States and Indonesia is a catch-22 for Australia. The US and Australia want Indonesia to become stronger in order for it to do more for the regional security environment. But unlike the United States, geographic proximity forces an important limitation on Australia's acceptance of strong Indonesian air and maritime forces.

Australia has long called for increased US engagement in the region. The question now is how Australia balances the US government's enthusiasm for a more regionally active and influential Indonesia with our own strategic priorities.


Esther Sainsbury is the Lowy Institute's Thawley Scholar for 2011. All views are her own, and do not reflect the opinion of the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

(This article is an edited version of an entry that appeared in the Lowy Institute's Interpreter that can be found here.)