Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Indonesia's quiet welcome of US troops in region

Sep 18, 2012

By John McBeth Senior Writer

WHEN Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa asserted last November that the training of US Marines at a base in Australia's Northern Territory would create "a vicious circle of tension and mistrust in the region", he was quickly forced to back down.
After all, it was clearly an embarrassment to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that US President Barack Obama was still on an official visit to Indonesia - his next stop after Darwin, where he had made the announcement of the new training arrangement.
Eight months later, Dr Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Julia Gillard pointedly chose the Northern Territory capital for bilateral talks, during which they discussed improved defence ties and Canberra gifted Indonesia with the first of four refurbished C-130H cargo planes.
Then, in early August, four Indonesian Sukhoi-30MK2 jet fighters entered Australian airspace for the first time for air combat exercises with Australian F/A-18s, US Marine Corps F-18s, Singaporean F-15SGs and Thai F-16s.
The Indonesian Air Force had only sent observers to Exercise Pitch Black in the past, so the Australians were surprised when Jakarta informed them in March it would be dispatching the Sukhois from their base in Makassar, South Sulawesi.
As much as Indonesia seeks to retain an even-handed foreign policy, particularly at a time of raised tensions in the South China Sea, the message seems clear: Within reason, the country's security chiefs favour an increased US presence in the region.
Canberra calmed any significant concerns by stressing the Marines will not be based in northern Australia. It also went further by rejecting a US think tank's proposal to station a carrier battle group at Perth's Stirling naval base, an idea that has not been endorsed by US officials.
The Australians are known to have been annoyed that Chinese leaders grilled Ms Gillard on the Marine training issue on her first official visit to Beijing last April, where she described the relationship as "important but complex".
Since then, the Chinese have raised hackles and created discomfort in the region with their renewed belligerence over the disputed Spratly Islands, which has caused a damaging divergence of views among the Asean partners.
Indonesia's participation in Australia's biggest air exercise comes when surging economic growth has enabled it to begin modernising its outdated military - even if some of the big-ticket items make little strategic sense.
One that does is the US$750 million (S$915 million) deal with the US for 24 refurbished F-16C/D jets, which will be armed with AGM-65K2 Maverick air-to-ground missiles and carry far more advanced avionics than those on its existing squadron of F-16A/Bs.
Deliveries will begin in 2014, with the Americans offering Jakarta the option of a third squadron to help fill the gap until Indonesia and South Korea enter into the planned joint production of a new-generation fighter in the mid-2020s.
The air force is also adding six more Su-30s to the five already in its inventory. Bought in response to the 18-year US arms embargo, the twin-engined Su-30's over-the-horizon radar and longer range make it better suited for maritime operations than the F-16.
Indonesia still needs 15 new radars to plug into an integrated air defence network that will allow the expanded fighter fleet to provide more effective control over the country's airspace.
Spending on the navy is increasing as well. In July, Indonesia signed a US$220 million deal with a Netherlands shipbuilder for a new Sigma-class guided-missile corvette, which will join four others shipped to the Indonesian Navy between 2007 and 2009.
The Indonesians are also in the market for three larger F2000-type corvettes, worth about US$300 million, which have been laid up at BAE Systems' Glasgow shipyard since 2002 when Brunei, the original customer, refused to accept delivery.
The Government's biggest naval order is the pending US$1.8 billion acquisition of three South Korean Type-209 submarines to go with two German-built 209s dating back to the early 1980s.
Defence Ministry officials say the diesel-electric attack craft are vital to protecting Indonesia's maritime borders, though they will do little to stop the illegal fishing and rampant smuggling that costs the country billions of dollars a year in lost revenues.
More controversially, the military appears to have broken down parliamentary resistance to its planned US$280 million purchase of 100 Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks - this time from Germany and not from the Netherlands as originally planned.
Dr Yudhoyono showed he was fully behind the deal during Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent visit to Jakarta, but it still has to be approved by the German government and a Parliament that appears to be just as hostile to it as its Dutch counterpart.
European opposition to the sale centres on a mix of "regional tensions", corruption and human rights. But it baffles military experts for a different reason: The tanks do not fit with Indonesia's strategic needs or the limitations of terrain and infrastructure.
Manoeuvring the 62-ton Leopards in overcrowded Java, with its under-strength bridges and narrow asphalt roads, would be almost impossible, reducing them to point defence and unable to engage in the mobile warfare for which they are designed.
Even then, there is confusion. A parliamentary hearing last year was told the tanks would be based in Jakarta and Surabaya. Other statements mention Kalimantan and Papua, where terrain would again be an issue - along with serious political and strategic implications.
Deploying the Leopards along accessible parts of the Malaysian border may only act as a further irritant in the relationship, with the two uneasy neighbours still embroiled in a territorial dispute in waters off East Kalimantan.
The Indonesians only recently announced they would build a submarine base at Palu in Central Sulawesi, which lies at the end of a deep-water inlet across the busy Makassar Strait shipping lane from the disputed Ambalat region.


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