New Australia-US Base and Indonesia

Last week US President Barrack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard unveiled the plan of establishing a US base equipped with 2,500 US marines in Darwin, Australia’s Northern Territory, only 820 kilometers from Indonesian territory. The Jakarta Post reported that the new US base should not be a threat to Indonesia, as President Yudhoyono was reassured by Gillard that “Australia and the US meant no harm in their plan to build military base in Darwin.”

International Law Professor Hikmahanto Juwana was quick to analyze that US interests may change from time-to-time, thus he warned that Indonesia should nevertheless be cautious about the US military presence in Australia. A part of that cautiousness was also attributed to whether the US would intervene among the rising tensions in the Papua region of Indonesia. Although during the recent visit, US Defense Secretary Leon Panettavoiced support for Indonesia’s strong stance against the Papua separatist movement.

The US and Australia have always been strong allies since a very long time, and as Michael Wesley from Lowy Institute have mentioned in an AlJazeera interview:

Australians tend to think with the American alliance as an insurance policy. We’re paying our premiums, we go to Afghanistan, we go to Iraq, and we just hope that the insurance premium will come when we’re in trouble.

And this is not a reason for Indonesia to be cautious with either Australia or the US?

One possibility of why Obama paved the way for the military base in Australia was to have a strategic position in the region especially to counter China’s influence. China was also quick to react to the plan, saying that “one should consider other regional countries’ interests when developing ties in that region”. Indeed, Stephen Walt from Foreign Policy explained why the US have been shifting a lot of strategic attention to Asia and mostly it is to contain China’s growing powers.

A friend once joked that when two elephants fight, the grass suffers. But when two elephants make love, the grass suffers also. It is too early to tell what Indonesia can get out of this positioning, but surely we need to figure out how to make the best out of the situation.


13 thoughts on “New Australia-US Base and Indonesia”

  1. The joke among Latin Americans is that Argentines are so full of themselves and feel that they are the center of the universe that when lightning strikes Buenos Aires they say that God is taking their photograph. Indonesia and Indonesians need to get over themselves, and realize that what the United States and Australia do not always revolve around nefarious and dastardly designs on Indonesia. If Uncle Sam wanted to launch an attack on Nusantara, an aircraft carrier parked in the southwest Atlantic would suffice. Yet another example of the paranoia and suspicion of the West that pervades Indonesian political culture.

    A question emerges: Why does Australia think that it needs an insurance policy and is willing to take out such policy, while Indonesia thinks that it needs no such insurance against risk?

  2. This issue has been a hot issue since last few weeks and the world still waiting what actions will be taken by the big two countries.

    In my point of view, USA’s action towards Australia is basically trying to preserve its hegemony in the Asia Pacific Region, particularly to China. Aussie is seen to be strategic partner for USA, not just because they’ve been a strong ally for the last decade, but also the geographic position of Australia.

    China’s high economic growth has demanded the government to provide sufficient energy supply. The main source of China’s energy supply is Middle East. In order to bring the oil from Middle East to China, there are several routes that could be taken. First route is through Malacca Strait. However this route contains several obstacles such as the presence Singapore which has been a close ally to USA and also the issue of pirate in Malacca Strait. These factors become considerations for China to not take this route. The second route is to go through Indian ocean, and all the way to north west of Australia and go to China by cutting Lombok strait of Indonesia. Since Indonesia is relatively have neutral foreign policy, in terms have strong relations with both China and USA, this route is more favorable than the first.

    By putting its military base in the Darwin which is located in the north tip of Aussie, America is trying to contain the influence of China in the Asia Pacific region. America realizes that the area is an important route for China to ensure the sustainability of its economic growth (hence the source of its power). So by controlling the area, America is sending the signal for China to not exert too much influence in the region since it will compensate USA’s position as the only hegemony in the world.

    Anyway, it’s just my thought.. Perhaps we should ask the Great Power professor about his opinion regarding this issue.. :p

  3. I’m afraid I don’t quite follow. How would stationing troops in Australia allow the U.S. to prevent China from using international waters to ship its oil? How would stationing troops in Australia allow the U.S. to prevent Indonesia from allowing the use of its waterways to China? There’s a lot of conspiratorial soft-thinking around this issue…

  4. @Maurico:
    a) your statement of “paranoia and suspicion of the West that pervades Indonesian political culture.” is assumptive at best, if not a downright poor analysis. In fact because Obama is U.S. president I’d say that most Indonesians view the US much more favorably then under Bush. Just last week the president’s of both countries announced that Indonesia would purchase 24 refurbished F-16’s from the U.S. ( Looking at Indonesia’s history with U.S. defense contracts you would think this would be a poor strategic decision. It probably was, but how many politicians “paranoid of the west” spoke up against this?

    b) West-China-Indonesia relations aside, wouldn’t you be concerned if your neighbor brought in a platoon of heavily armed third party guards, and stationed them by your doorstep? Sure, you might be on good terms with your neighbor, but whose to say that won’t change? Then again, an invasion of Indonesia is very unlikely, and would prove very disastrous for the invader.

    But people are not worried about that scenario. As a sovereign state it would be ridiculous to NOT discuss the possible ramifications of the placement of foreign troops this close to Indonesian territory. At the very least, discuss the political impacts of relations between nations.

    The placement of US troops in Darwin does send the message that the US considers the region as militarily strategic. A sly move from Indonesia would be to probe both the US and China, and figure out if lucrative defense/economic deals can be made for the reassurance that Indonesia would remain a neutral party. Again this depends a lot on the people in power in Jakarta, and I don’t have high hopes for them.

    1. @maurico: oh, and “an aircraft carrier parked in the southwest Atlantic” might spook the Argentinians, but not Nusantara.
      Even if the US parked a carrier in the Indian or Pacific Ocean I don’t think Indonesia would be worried. Hell, the airforce dispatched 2 underarmed F-16s in response to F/A-18s performing their routine carrier protection role, just because they didn’t have airspace clearance! :p

  5. Sam Roggeveen at Lowy Institute has some good points to make on the Canberra-Jakarta-Washington strategic triangle (sorry, it slipped out!):

    To build on some of the previous comments, 2,500 Marines in remote northern Australia don’t really change the military dynamic in the region at all. It’s certainly a signal to China. But also, the more basing agreements the US has, the more flexibility the Pentagon has when it negotiates with South Korea, Japan, Singapore, etc over bases there. And in foreign policy, you can never have enough wiggle room.

    Also, while no one in Canberra or Washington is going to say this, for the significant future there will significant concerns about instability in the Southern Pacific. The recent experiences in Timor Leste and the Solomons are still very much in the short term memory of policy makers. And heck, this time last year no one could have foreseen that the US aircraft carrier based in Japan would used to ferry supplies to Sendai.

  6. I’m a little slow so bear with me. I don’t quite follow why or how Indonesia would react against the U.S. or the West when the U.S. sells Indonesia fighter airplanes. Why would Indonesia resist being armed by the West, and why would it reject it?

    Once again, a lot of soft thinking revolves Obama and the U.S.-Indonesia relationship. Obama spent a whole of four freakin’ years in Indonesia when he was a child. Indonesians who think this amounts to a hill of beans in the conduct of foreign policy are deceiving themselves.

    You knew I meant the Pacific, not the Atlantic. The last time the Indonesian armed forces faced a real army, it fled like scared little girls across the border to Atambua and West Timor. And that was only a small contingent of Aussies. Now imagine the hurt that can be unleashed from an aircraft carrier, and you realize those troops sitting in Darwin add as much to the equation as Obama’s four-year boyhood stint in Menteng.

  7. Sure it’s not about how powerful (or miniscule) two battalions of marines is. It’s about the message being sent.

    “Why would Indonesia resist being armed by the West, and why would it reject it?”
    Answer: Indonesia has a past of being dependent on the U.S. for military equipment, particularly aircraft (C-130, F-16s, etc). Several human rights violations (including Timor Leste) prompted the U.S. to enforce an arms embargo, essentially crippling the capabilities of the Indonesian Air-force. In recent years, the Indonesian military has explored other options including purchasing several squadrons of Su-27’s from Russia. We’re not hoping that more human rights violations occur in the future, but security of supply is definitely a valid concern for any defense force.

    The last time the Indonesian forces faced a real army was during the Malaysia confrontation. And even that was inconclusive due to Sukarno being deposed. FYI, INTERFET was deployed in Timor Leste after the UN referendum. At no point during this period were Australia and Indonesia in open conflict, and neither militaries were under orders to engage with each other.

    On another note, I’m also willing to bet my dime that given the same equipment, the Indonesian army will be a formidable opponent in any war-game exercise in the jungles of Indonesia. Everyone clearly remembers what happened the last time the U.S. ventured too far into the jungles of Asia (read: Vietnam).

  8. Finally. Yes, those American GIs in Oz are about signaling and posturing. They are not about an increase in capability or hostility. But hey, why let a sober assessment get in the way of a juicy conspiracy theory.

  9. Conspiracy theories aside, policy makers in any country worth their salt should pay attention if a third country plunks 2,500 troops down in one of their neighbors. The fact that this move is causing much more agitation in China, 4,000 km away, then, in Indonesia, 800 km away, shows how far the Canberra-Jakarta-Washington relationship has come.

    A more interesting question is what scenarios could conceivably dis-rail this forward progress. Fika mentioned the Papua separatist movement, which seems like the most likely candidate but not one that is going to become another Timor Leste any time soon. And other other possibilities?

  10. Yankee, go home! Let the Australians and the Indonesians be their own insurers of last resort. Australia is a rich country. I don’t see why the U.S. should be providing a shield or insurance of any sort.

  11. Here’s an amusing letter to the editor of the Jakarta Post:

    Letter: Darwin is not Indonesia’s backyard
    | Mon, 11/21/2011 9:02 PM
    If Indonesia is concerned about US Marines training in Darwin on a six-month rotating basis, then the government should consider the cessation of training programs between Indonesian and US forces as well as the suggested donation of US military aircraft and equipment.

    The fact is that China has been aggressively attempting to extend its maritime territories in the South China Sea against the claims made by several member states of the ASEAN community.

    Darwin is not Indonesia’s backyard but a sovereign territory of Australia.

    However, Papua is Indonesia’s backyard and perhaps this troubled region should be the focus of the Indonesian government, especially in attempting to solve the many humanitarian issues in this region through non-military interventions.

    The moral is: You should clean up your own backyard before criticizing your neighbor.


    Perhaps instead of focusing on the threat of foreign militaries, Indonesians ought to focus on the more immediate and present threat that its own military poses to Indonesian nationals.

  12. Just yesterday I clarified to my driver that Freeport was not controlled, administered, directed or owned by the U.S. government. He was surprised to know that Freeport is a private entity in which he is able to buy shares and that it is not an American state owned enterprise. I think I broke his heart, for he will know have to find another venue to vent his anger, frustration and paranoia. I think it’s fair to say that views like his are not in the last uncommon, and that it is views that like these that inform to a great extent the news of the U.S. stationing troops in Oz.

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