A strategic move

Published : Jan 27, 2006 00:00 IST

The U.S. decision to help Indonesia "modernise" its military establishment is a strategic move that may acquire unforeseen importance in 2006.


MARITIME security is being cited by the United States as a "joint objective" that deserves to be pursued in association with Indonesia, among a few others, in East Asia. In fact, "maritime security" has been bracketed with "counter-terrorism" and "disaster relief" in a new catalogue of reasons for strategic cooperation between Washington and Jakarta.

To be sure, the U.S. has not formally identified Indonesia as a strategic ally or partner in East Asia. However, the U.S. decision on November 22, 2005, to help Indonesia "modernise" its military establishment (TNI in local parlance) was a strategic move which, in the reckoning of regional diplomats and analysts, may acquire unforeseen importance in 2006. However, if no definitive diplomatic bets are being placed yet on such a possibility, the reasons have much to do with Indonesia's slow-paced resurgence as a democracy that could also stay stable over the longer term.

Another factor of uncertainty has to do with the durability of America's attention span in regard to Indonesia in this context. Relevant to this aspect is Washington's growing strategic dependence on China to resolve the issues relating to the nuclear-weapons programme of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the East Asian theatre itself.

What is reasonably clear, despite such ifs and buts, is the U.S. move to try and coopt Indonesia for a policy of creating a second line of China containment. With the U.S. having updated and reinforced its long established military alliance with Japan in October 2005 (Frontline, August 12, 2005), the main strategic battle-lines were indeed firmed up for Washington's bid to prevent China from emerging as a peer-competitor in the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.S. is obviously scouting for more friends and allies for a potential global-scale containment of China over a longer term. India does figure in such a U.S. calculus, but that is a different story.

From the U.S perspective, the control of key sea lanes in the Asia-Pacific zone is essential, for two sets of reasons. There is the more obvious objective of "counter-terrorism" and anti-piracy operations in the current global milieu of political priorities. But, there is also the discernible U.S. objective of keeping an eye on China, itself a growing maritime power.

Now, the strategic importance of Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago-state that straddles important sea lanes, has not been missed by the U.S., long schooled in the `thoughts' of Alfred Thayer Mahan, a `guru' who advocated maritime supremacy as a defining aspect of American power. Indonesia, surely, has a long way to go before its potential as a major maritime power can be realised. However, when the U.S. decided to help it "modernise" the TNI, the naval angle was kept in prime focus, "maritime security" being projected as a "joint objective".

There is an often downplayed, or even ignored, reason why Indonesia is particularly important for a global maritime player like the U.S. The Straits of Malacca in South-East Asia is arguably the busiest sea lane for global trade and it covers, at once, the interests of major economic powerhouses like the U.S., Japan, and China. It and the adjoining Straits of Singapore have been increasingly identified as potential terrorist targets in view of their enormous economic importance to the U.S. and its friends and allies.

In this context, the maritime passageways that crisscross the Indonesian archipelago can, if suitably developed, serve as an alternative to the Straits of Malacca. The economic viability of such a project may not have been worked out by the governments concerned. However, the political attractiveness of an alternative global trade route across South-East Asia remains a compelling proposition.

A counter-point, obviously, is whether Indonesia, which is increasingly seen as a fertile territory for Al Qaeda and its "regional affiliate", the Jemaah Islamiyah (J.I.), can indeed provide a safe alternative route for global trade.

It is in this subtext that the U.S. reasoning for helping Indonesia "modernise" the TNI makes interesting reading. The ongoing democratisation of the Indonesian polity and its current emergence as "a voice of moderation in the Islamic world", under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, have been outlined in justification of the U.S. move to befriend the TNI and help Jakarta beef up its military muscle.

As for U.S. appreciation of Indonesia's undeniable democratisation at this stage, the political irony is that Washington's hands are not clean insofar as the political evolution of this South-East Asian country is concerned. It is widely chronicled that the U.S. had aided the process of toppling a democratically elected government in Indonesia in the 1950s. This does not, however, cast a slur on Indonesia's current efforts to energise itself as a resurgent democracy.

Equally important is the U.S.' latest certification of Indonesia's moderation as the world's largest Muslim majority country. At one level, the recent terrorist strike in the Indonesian holiday resort of Bali, the second such major attack there in about four years, has served as a grim reminder of the challenges that Jakarta still faces on this front. At another, President Yudhoyono has reassured the international community of his political resolve to ensure that the terrorists do not fly under the radar.

Significant, against this backdrop, are the difficulties that Indonesia has encountered in securing the full cooperation of the U.S. for anti-terror preparedness. Washington's sense of proprietary prerogative in investigating Hambali, an Indonesian national and a suspected top leader of the J.I., is illustrative of these difficulties. Hambali was caught in Thailand under a U.S.-led anti-terror operation in 2003.

Given these realities, the U.S. reasoning for moving closer to Indonesia has at least as much to do with its democratic polity and moderation in the Islamic world as with other and strategic considerations. With the TNI having been the target of much U.S. criticism over the years and with Indonesia having come under the U.S.' military-related sanctions in the past, the latest American move has a clear strategic thrust of the lift-off kind.

The strategic scene is not complicated, though. In 2004, the U.S. came up with the idea that a regional maritime security initiative (RMSI) be implemented to safeguard the shipping lanes of the Straits of Malacca. The proposal sparked instant resistance from Malaysia and also Indonesia which, along with Singapore, constitute the littoral domain of the Straits of Malacca. The opposition from Indonesia and Malaysia (Frontline, July 1, 2005) was based on the reasoning that there was no justification to jettison the principle of national sovereignty over maritime zones in order to allow the formidable U.S. Navy a free run of the Straits of Malacca. The U.S. counter-argument was that the narrow waterway, as an international shipping route, had no sovereign maritime zones at all.

The resistance to the RMSI prompted much thinking about suitable alternatives, although the U.S. never really gave up the idea altogether. As a result, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have, for some time now, resorted to "coordinated patrolling" of the Straits of Malacca. This is entirely in harmony with the principle of national sovereignty of the littoral states.

In August 2005, the littoral states initiated the "Eyes in the Sky" project to supplement the coordinated naval patrolling. Essentially a "maritime air patrol", the project was extended by the littorals to Thailand, which falls within their geopolitical neighbourhood.

It is in this context of proactive patrolling of the Straits of Malacca by the local players that the U.S. has now wooed Indonesia, a key littoral state, whose President, formerly a TNI chief, had undergone military training at American facilities during his non-civilian career.

Yudhoyono has not so far emerged as an Indonesian Musharraf for American strategic purposes. Nor has the Indonesian leader indicated whether his country would be willing to play second fiddle to the U.S. in any future China-containment project. However, as a former military leader with Eisenhower-like ambitions, Yudhoyono knows the value of U.S. help for the TNI's modernisation. More significantly, Washington has made no secret of its intention to recruit Indonesia as a potential ally in these circumstances, and maritime security is an honourable proposition.

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