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Indonesia between the superpowers


21 December 2018

Diplomatic apprehension on the part of the Indonesian government of President Joko Widodo about the proposed US-led military planning with Australia to upgrade the Lombrum naval facilities on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, has revealed three important considerations:
In the first place, Indonesia itself, as a rising regional power, has established favourable diplomatic relations with China for trade and economic development. It has no wish to see obstacles created which undermine their diplomatic relations;
Secondly, Indonesia fears being drawn into conflict between US-led allies and China amid the waves of US-led militarism sweeping the region;
Finally, fears expressed by the Indonesian government are also felt elsewhere across the region. A recent move by the Trump administration has also raised a problem about internal governance of specific countries with reference to defence and security provision and 'US interests'.
In mid-December, the Indonesian government of President Joko Widodo issued a diplomatic note to Australia expressing concern about US-led military planning at the Lombrum naval facilities on Manus Island, PNG. (1) The concern followed a presidential briefing from Abdul Kharis Almasyhari, chairperson of the parliamentary defence, security and foreign affairs committee, noting the US-led military planning would 'increase political tensions' across the area. (2)
Indonesia is particularly sensitive to perceived threats to sovereignty and internal political stability: the country straddles the southern-most point of the South China Seas which provide access and egress into the Indian Ocean, some of the most congested shipping-lanes in the world; Indonesia is a diverse society, with a huge population inhabiting a large number of islands.
The US-led military planning for the Lombrum naval facilities was announced recently amid concern about the rising influence of China in the region which has successfully used diplomatic initiatives and investment in countries across the region. The move has been assessed by the Pentagon as a threat to traditional US regional hegemonic positions.
The US has historically however, used Australia as a regional hub to secure 'US interests' in the region: Canberra, therefore, developed neo-colonial relations with most of the Pacific Islands in the period leading to independence and post-independence. During the Cold War and immediate post-Cold War period, it was an easy relationship for Australia. They had to do little to maintain their role as a Mother Country across the region. The rise of China has now economically challenged much of the power relationship.
For the US, economic considerations merge with defence and security provision, particularly as their military planning attempts to reassert traditional hegemonic positions.
The problem now confronting US-led military planning, however, is that Australia has been regarded as displaying a patronising attitude toward the Pacific 'when citing the China threat', which has included, 'condescending rhetoric', which, it has been noted, 'will push Pacific political elites toward China'. (3) Most of the countries across the wider Asia-Pacific region have also had ethnic minorities of Chinese descent for centuries, and despite tensions that have been acute at times, they are not generally regarded as political adversaries.
The US has now also fully implemented the Global Transformation of Defence and Security (GTDS), which has included Japan being transformed into a fully-fledged northern regional hub for 'US interests' with Australia as a southern counterpart. The specific intention of the triangular GTDS system is to contain and encircle Chinese influences in the region, and has set countries across the wider region on a potential collision course with the US-led initiatives. The fact the triangular diplomatic relationship has also enabled the US to reduce its regional military capacity, using Japan and Australia for real-war scenarios linked to Pentagon planning behind the scenes, has also added to diplomatic apprehension across the region. Official media releases, for example, have pointed out that 'Japan and Australia are understood to be pursuing deeper and broader defence co-operation, including joint exercises, strategic visits, trilateral co-operation with the US, and further sharing of defence equipment, science and technology'. (4) 
The Lombrum naval facilities now appear as an addition to the triangular diplomatic relationship. They have been publicised in official media releases in the following manner: 'the move will ensure US and Australian access to the strategically vital deep-water port, which has a sweeping command of Australia's maritime approaches, is big enough to accommodate aircraft carriers, and has anchorage capacity for hundreds of ships'. (5) The Lombrum facilities are not only confined to naval considerations: it has been noted that a nearby airport 'could also be used for surveillance flights'. (6)
The Lombrum base is clearly being developed to provide rapid deployment facilities for elsewhere in the region. There are, for example, a number of potential 'flashpoints' in the South China Seas, raising a potential problem for Jakarta.
It has been interesting to note that following initial publicity about the Lombrum facilities, the Australian Coalition government has now chosen to hide behind the veils of secrecy. It is not difficult to establish the reason: initial media releases noted that the Lombrum facilities were solely the responsibility of PNG. A paper-trail, revealing Australian defence budget flows of capital to fund the project would suggest otherwise. The total cost of the military planning in the official Canberra Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook was marked 'not for publication'. This followed the Australian government citing 'national security sensitivities'. (7) The total cost of the military planning has been estimated to run into a multi-billion dollar outlay funded primarily by Australian tax-payers to serve 'US interests' in the South Pacific. (8)
Military and intelligence facilities, such as those planned for the Lombrum base, also have stated aims together with those rarely publicised. Surveillance and monitoring facilities can, for example, be used for whole espionage purposes both of perceived adversaries and allies, including their diplomacy and trade considerations. Codenamed Stateroom, Australian Signals have been caught tapping into radio, telecommunications and internet traffic across the region on numerous occasions. (9)
Indonesia, it is important to note, has favourable diplomatic relations with China, and is also a rising regional power in its own right Since coming to power in 2014, President Joko Widodo has made infrastructure a major government priority to boost economic development; it has used initiatives with the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to also further boost its relationship with Beijing. (10) Indonesian diplomacy with China has also included stronger defence ties, particularly in the maritime realm; the two countries have a defence agreement ratified by the legislature in 2016, following nearly a decade of previous joint co-operation. (11).
It is therefore no surprise that Indonesia has expressed concern about the Lombrum facilities: its official diplomatic position notes that 'any military conflict involving the US, Australia and China would also have to go through Indonesia's strategic geography one way or another'. (12) Concern has been expressed by Indonesian politicians within the ruling coalition group in Jakarta that 'tensions between China and the US – currently engaged in a trade war and ongoing struggle for regional supremacy – could spill into conflict. (13)
Such a problem is a very real concern for Indonesia: the recent diplomatic note from Indonesia to Australia, for example, also drew attention to the problem that while Indonesian-Australian defence co-operation had increased in recent years, 'Australian strategic planning should not assume passive neutrality on the part of Indonesia in thinking about a future regional conflict'. (14)
The problem is not only confined to Indonesia; elsewhere in the region similar developments are taking place.
The Philippines, long a bastion of US strategic planning for the region, has in recent years under President Duterte displayed a more independent foreign policy. Trade with China also increased by 34 per cent during the period August 2017 to August 2018. (15) The moves have been accompanied by China becoming a close defence partner with the Philippines. (16)
Elsewhere, in Thailand, increased ties with China which have included massive infrastructure projects, are slowly dislodging traditional US positions. (17)
Fears by regional countries about possible problems with access and egress between the South China Seas and Indian Ocean have seen both Thailand and Malaysia hold joint naval exercises with China in the sensitive Straits of Malacca. (18)
There are numerous other examples with almost every country across the Asia-Pacific region.
It has, however, been a recent decision by the Trump administration in the US about the Huawei telecommunications company which has raised a further serious question for many countries in the region. Following diplomatic initiatives by the previous Obama administrations to re-open many small military bases across the region in preparation for possible future hostilities, the Trump administration has now called on governments hosting US military bases to not use Huawei facilities. While the Pentagon has its own satellite and communications systems for higher level classified material, most traffic from military installations continues to use commercial networks. (19) Most countries, across the region, it should be noted, use Huawei telecommunications as a matter of course. It remains to be seen, therefore, how the matter is resolved, if that is possible: a more likely scenario will be a further heightening of diplomatic tensions across the wider region which increasingly resembles a possible 'theatre of war'.
In conclusion, a changing balance of forces has already taken place across the Asia-Pacific region; governments, in the region, are fully aware of the development. They fear, however, being drawn into regional conflicts and hostilities by US-led military planning in the name of 'US interests'.
The sooner Australia establishes an independent foreign policy to distance ourselves from US-led military planning, the better!
1.     PNG base upgrade worries Jakarta, The Weekend Australian, 15-16 December 2018.
2.     Ibid.
3.     Statement from University of PNG, in, Pacific Votes For Future, Australian, 22 November 2018.
4.     Japanese PM set to visit sub war grave, Australian, 13 November 2018.
5.     US push should spell end of China's easy wins, Australian, 19 November 2018.
6.     Warning over Manus naval hub, Australian, 20 November 2018.
7.     Cost of joint Manus facility a secret, Australian, 18 December 2018.
8.     Ibid.
9.     Revealed: How Australia spies on its neighbours, The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 October 2013.
10.   Indonesia and China's AIIB, The Diplomat, 26 July 2016.
11.   What's next for China – Indonesia Military Ties? The Diplomat, 31 July 2018.
12.   Weekend Australian, op.cit., 15-16 December 2018.
13.   Ibid.
14.   Ibid.
15.   Is the Philippine Pro-China Policy Working? The Diplomat, 14 November 2018.
16.   Duterte engaging China via backdoor diplomacy, The Asia Times, 29 October 2018.
17.   Thailand Turns to China, The Diplomat, 20 October 2018.
18.   China's Navy to join Thailand and Malaysia,The South China Morning Post, 15 October 2018.
19.   US leans on its allies to pull plug on Huawei, The Weekend Australian, 24-25 November 2018.


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