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Australia, Indonesia and US control of the Indo-Pacific

Written by: (Contributed) on 19 February 2020


The recent high-level diplomatic visit of President Joko Widodo to Australia has been accompanied by a Department of Defence media release about an upgrade and refurbishment of an airfield on Australia's Cocos/Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean (above), near Indonesia.

The Cocos/Keeling Islands facilities appear central to a longer-term US-led regional military plan pursued through Australia, as part of a wave of militarisation. The US-led military plan, however, rests upon foreign policy initiatives which have proved far from stable, raising questions about the changing nature of traditional hegemonic positions and viability of longer-term planning.

Diplomatic relations between Australia and Indonesia have tended to be strained for decades; while Australia has always regarded Indonesia as a close regional neighbour, the relationship has never been straightforward. Australia diplomacy toward Indonesia has often been critical, of perceived threats in the Sukarno period, repression at the time of Suharto and decades of stand-offs over East Timor.

In recent times, however, Australia has been keen to pursue stronger diplomatic relations with Jakarta as part of wider regional planning. It is therefore interesting to note the recent high-level diplomatic visit of President Joko Widodo to Canberra was referred to as a plan to 'concentrate on a joint future as anchors of economic, trade and security in the Indo-Pacific'. (1) The term Indo-Pacific was a recent US linguistic invention, where defence and security considerations and 'US interests' for the Indian Ocean were linked to those of the Pacific region.
While addressing the Australian parliament, President Joko Widodo drew attention to joint security co-operation and intelligence-sharing and called for joint regional leaderships to act as anchors with specific reference to the South Pacific, a highly strategic sub-section of the wider region close to both Australia and Indonesia. (2)
In recent times the three main countries of the South Pacific, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, have all developed stronger links with China. The moves have been regarded by Australia as a direct threat to close regional military and security provision. The military plan, therefore, to develop the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island formed part of a concerted US-led initiative to draw PNG closer back into line with traditional US domination of the region. Far from being a small naval facility, the Lombrum base will 'be a leading regional naval base', used for 'hosting joint exercises'. (3)
There has also been little ambiguity about who has been pulling strings behind the scenes; the US has a naval attache based in their embassy in Port Moresby. It has also been noted that 'high-ranking US officials have been visiting the country'. (4)
The timing of the announcement that the Australian Department of Defence was allocating $184 million for an upgrade and refurbishment of their Cocos/Keeling Islands airfield facility can also be seen as part of the same regional military planning. The development of the airfield will begin mid-year and be specifically for use with new P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft, operational more than 2,000 kms from base facilities.
It is significant to note both the Lombrum naval base and the Cocos/Keeling Islands exist on the same arc from Pine Gap, Central Australia. The arc also swings leftwards through much of Indonesia and rightwards across other sensitive areas of the Pacific. (5) The so-called joint facilities at Pine Gap are directly linked to similar facilities on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and the Pentagon; they remain central to US-led global defence and security provision.
The military hardware based at Pine Gap and Diego Garcia has also been linked into other regional facilities in recent years.
During the Obama presidential period, for example, high-level diplomatic visits to countries across the region were accompanied by a re-opening of joint military facilities which the 'US military either abandoned or was evicted … decades ago'. (6) Changes to the US intelligence services also saw the transformation of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), with a further 1,600 'collectors' in various sensitive locations. (7) The new intelligence positions were directly linked to the US Department of Defence, and concerned primarily with assessments of regional balances of forces and threats to traditional hegemonic positions; military intelligence, historically, has had a separate identity to other branches of the intelligence services.
It is also interesting to note recent Australian Defence Department media releases and military exhibitions have all stressed the development of longer-range regional facilities, particularly in line with technological research. The regional matrix of joint military facilities clearly have strategic significance for the Pentagon and the countries they use as regional hubs for operations; a reference to 'planning for the future force to maximise the Australian Defence Force's ability to see deep into the Indo-Pacific region as an essential enabler for striking deep when necessary', leaves little to the imagination about the nature of US-led military planning and the role of Australia. (8)
The US, however, had to deal with numerous problems in the Indo-Pacific region; traditional alliances had become strained in recent times. China has become a dominant player across the region; they, in many ways, have won the regional diplomatic offensive in recent years; most countries regard their trade links with China as important. Countries have had little difficulty accommodating China with their own economic planning for mutual benefit.
The problem which has arisen for US-led regional military planning is that the foreign policy on which it has rested has had to deal with the rapidly changing balance of forces. The US can no longer rely upon traditional alliances and hegemonic positions; US foreign policy has entered a turbulent period, countries once regarded as compliant allies are now viewed with unease from Washington and the Pentagon. 
Two recent examples of the problem confronting US foreign policy include the Philippines and South Korea (ROK).
The recent case arising with the Philippines wanting to cease Visiting Forces Agreements with the US has upset traditional diplomatic relations. The Philippines remains central to the concept of 'US interests', but the country now has particularly strong links with China. Moves by President Duterte and his administration in Manila to sever the key security pact with the US has, therefore, sent shock waves into the heartlands of Canberra, which regard the decision as jeopardising US regional positions and strengthening the regional hand of China. (9)
The administration of President Moon Jae-in in the Blue House in the ROK wanting to have stronger links with North Korea (DPRK) and China and to re-open the Kaesong Trade Park in the north is yet another example of the same problem. The country has important US military facilities for rapid regional deployment with the Defence of Japan doctrine. The fact the US now appears to be considering moving part of the ROK military facilities to Guam, a US protectorate in Micronesia, is evidence of their questionable longer-term position on the Korean peninsula. 
There are numerous other examples across the region where US-led military positions rest upon allies whose governments may change, subsequently altering policies. The recent switch of diplomatic positions from Taiwan to Beijing by the Solomon Islands, likewise, has had far-reaching implications for the US and Canberra; Taiwan is increasingly being forced out of regional diplomacy.
In response to this changing regional balance of forces, US imperialism now appears to buttress its traditional position in the South Pacific to include stronger relations between Australia and Indonesia. As is common with neo-colonial relations the moves have also coincided with the announcement that a South Pacific trade pact has been fast-tracked and will be finalised before the end of the year. (10) 
It is also highly significant to note the longer-term planning of the whole venture; the recent high-level diplomacy between Australia and Indonesia, for example, was accompanied by a statement stressing the defence and security provision included 'the vision, in the medium-term to the middle of this decade and in the long-term to 2050'. (11) The time-span was not idle pontification: the period in question is likely to be marred by hostilities; by the middle of this decade China is set to equal the US in economic terms on present-day projections, by 2050 it will be likely to have completely displaced the former world leader.
Before Australia gets drawn into regional hostilities by following US-led military planning:
                                            We need an independent foreign policy!

1.     Much-needed maturity and reassurance, Australian, 11 February 2020.
2.     Ibid.
3.     Lombrum naval base upgrade, Post Courier (PNG), 14 March 2019.
4.     Ibid.
5.     Peters Projection, Map of the World, Actual Size, Scale 1: 1,230,000,000.
6.     US eyes return to south-east Asian bases, The Guardian Weekly (U.K.), 29 June 2012, and, US signs defence deal in Asia, The Guardian Weekly (U.K.), 2 May 2014.
7.     Pentagon plays the spy game, The Guardian Weekly (U.K.), 7 December 2012.
8.     A gap to close in next-generation defence, Avalon 2019 Special Report, The Australian, 26 February 2019.    
9.     Editorial, Duterte risks regional stability, Australian, 17 February 2020.
10.   Push to quicken deal on South Pacific trade, The Weekend Australian, 15-16 February 2020.
11.   Australian, op.cit., 11 February 2020.


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