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Indonesia’s Strategic Flexibility

This post was cross-posted by permission from The Security Scholar and is republished with permission. It may be read in its original form here.

By Natalie Sambhi

Brad Nelson has a neat overview in the Jakarta Globe earlier this month of Indonesia’s strategic options vis-à-vis China and the U.S. Enabled by what he calls ‘strategic flexibility’ (which I think is actually an extension of Indonesia’s so-called ‘dynamic equilibrium’ approach), Indonesia can stay neutral, pick China or the U.S., be a mediator/conduit or play the big kids off against one another.

Natuna Islands
                            The disputed Natuna Islands

Nelson rightly identifies Indonesia as attempting to pursue a ‘conduit’-type role. In fact, to be an effective conduit and exert real influence on the U.S. and China, Nelson prescribes Indonesia build goodwill as a conflict mediator and regional problem-solver.

In theory, it’s a sensible option but I have my misgivings about how it’s presented in relatively unproblematic terms. I say this because I’m reminded of comments made at a recent workshop by a participant challenging Indonesia’s image as a neutral party in South China Sea disputes. They asked, how could Indonesia be a legitimate mediator if it refuses mediation itself on issues such as the Natuna Islands?

Not being an expert on Indonesia’s territorial disputes, I dug up some of I Made Andi Arsana’s writing to work out how much of an issue Natuna is. Arsana’s overview of the history around the Natuna Island EEZ reveals a complicated picture (excerpt):

On the other hand, China seems to have a different view. In 2010, for example, Chinese fishermen were caught fishing in waters off the Natuna Islands, which Indonesia unilaterally considers as part of its EEZ. When patrolling Indonesian officers approached to arrest the vessels, a large Chinese vessel arrived and demanded that the vessels be released.

This gives the impression that the fishing vessels were guarded by a large vessel known as the “Chinese fishery administration vessel”. It can be inferred that China has extended its maritime claim up to the area that Indonesia believes to be its.

The aforementioned incident implies that Indonesia is not totally free from the SCS conflict.

Nelson approach isn’t incorrect but it requires more detail than its current form to be a true representation of Indonesia’s strategic options. It might be strengthened by addressing questions about China–Indonesia strategic relations, found in other writings of Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto and Greta Nabbs-Keller, to name a few. With reports earlier this year of the Indonesian navy on alert for possible Chinese claims to Natuna waters, it seems like this isn’t over yet.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, editor of The Strategist and co-editor of Security Scholar. She is also a Hedley Bull Scholar and graduate of the Australian National University.

More Than Words: Australia-Indonesia Strategic Relations

Australia-Indonesia Joint Patrol

By Natalie Sambhi

Australia’s leaders from both sides of politics have been paying greater attention to Indonesia; there’s been more official engagement, as well as new diplomatic and defence initiatives in the past year. And we’ve been describing Indonesia, as our Defence Minister has during his Jakarta visit last week, in more important terms like ‘strategic partner’.

But it looks like that there’s some way to go before ‘strategic partner’ becomes more than just a term of endearment. If we look at the 2009 Defence White Paper (for the time being still the government’s defence strategic policy), we find a curious ambivalence towards Indonesia. According to the White Paper, we have a ‘fundamental interest in controlling the air and sea approaches to our continent’ (paragraph 5.5). But in reference to a secure immediate neighbourhood, it says we should prevent or mitigate ‘nearby states [from] develop[ing] the capacity to undertake sustained military operations within our approaches’ (paragraph 5.8). There’s a contradiction there; as Hugh White notes in his Security Challenges essay (PDF), it may very well be those same capabilities Indonesia requires to ensure its own security in its northern approaches that could be instrumental in both Indonesia and Australia securing their strategic interests.

In short, the language of the 2009 Defence White Paper simply doesn’t match our statements of Indonesia as a strategic partner. And although there are asymmetries in our capabilities, a strategic partnership means allowing and encouraging Indonesia to grow in a way that complements our strengths and compensates for our weaknesses so that we can work together; if Indonesia is to play an important role in our strategic future, then actively mitigating or preventing particular capacities isn’t the way to go.

This position might have been justifiable in white papers released after Konfrontasi (during which Australia and Indonesia found themselves on opposing sides of the conflict) or shortly after the 1999 East Timor intervention, during which relations with Indonesia were more fractious and the military (TNI) was only just exiting Indonesian politics. But times have changed.

On the domestic front, Indonesia is a much more stable, democratic state. In economic terms Indonesia is now starting to flex its muscle. Its GDP grew by an annualised 6.4% in the second quarter of 2012, its economy is now larger than Australia’s in purchasing power parity terms, and its middle class is larger than Australia’s population. TNI no longer exerts the same level of direct influence on politics and there’s a greater commitment to crack down on corruption. In regional terms, Indonesia enjoys greater clout and has attracted the attention of international partners such as the United States, the United Kingdom and China. Recent participation in RAAF-hosted Exercise Pitch Black 2012 (see image) shows Indonesia’s willingness to engage with partners such as Australia by sending their newest aircraft to build person-to-person ties and to dispel doubt as to their military intentions.

Barring a significant change in Indonesia’s trajectory of growth and domestic transformation, this is likely to become an enduring externality for Australian policy. Nonetheless, it’s worth thinking through the factors that could cause problems for Indonesia down the track: these include slowed growth, a change of leadership to one that is more internally focused, and deteriorating domestic stability. The question is whether these eventualities would adversely affect the Indonesia–Australia relationship in the long-term or would merely slow the engagement temporarily. That said, the relationship between Indonesia and Australia seems to be on an unstoppable path of growth. A nationalist President of Indonesia would be a concern but wouldn’t necessarily require a radical rewrite of Indonesia’s place in our strategic interests. In any case, as one RSIS commentator notes (PDF), nationalism at present is not a call for concern.

Likewise, Australia can cause ructions over livestock, people smuggling or the incarcerations of Australians, but the fundamental shared interests should ultimately prevail. In terms of shifting regional geopolitics, Australia and Indonesia might have more in common in the future Asia as we both navigate China’s rise and the US rebalance. A Defence Cooperation Agreement signed recently between Australia and Indonesia provides a framework for practical cooperation on common security matters, but it’s time to work together as well on bigger, long-term strategic questions about the region.

Indonesia demands different handling in the next Defence White Paper, which is as much an opportunity as the Asian Century White Paper to correctly recognise Indonesia’s place. Language matters, because it sends a strong signal to both the Australian and Indonesian people about how we see each country’s place in the region. And while the majority of everyday people in each country may not delve into the pages of the White Paper, setting the tone for political interaction as well as doing away with ambiguous language remains important. Hopefully the 2013 White Paper will articulate Indonesia’s importance and elevate it to partner status rather than a subordinate. That sort of constructive language would remove the disparity between language of the 2009 White Paper and the increasing importance of close defence relations and alignment of strategic interests between the two nations.

The White Paper might start by recognising the complementarity across our capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. Or it could, as Hugh White suggests, create a heading for Indonesia separate from the rest of ‘our neighbourhood’ to recognise the important role it plays in our strategic environment. While there’s no prospect of an alliance between our countries in the foreseeable future, it would provide a more robust basis in our national policy to give a broader context to initiatives such as the recently signed Defence Cooperation Agreement.

Defence Minister Smith assures us that he is ‘committed to regular, open and transparent discussions with Indonesia on the development of Australia’s 2013 Defence White Paper’. Let’s hope the final cut pays them the same due respect.

Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, editor of The Strategist and co-editor of Security Scholar. She is also a Hedley Bull Scholar and graduate of the Australian National University.

This article appeared in its original form and was cross-posted by permission from The Security Scholar.

In Brief: New Frigates of the Netherlands and Singapore

By N.R. Jenzen-Jones

The Netherlands’ De Zeven Provinciën Class

HNLMS Evertsen on patrol off the Horn of Africa, as part of NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield.

HNLMS Evertsen is one of four De Zeven Provinciën class air defence and command frigates in service with the Royal Netherlands Navy (Koninklijke Marine). Evertsen is the youngest of the four, having been completed in 2003 and commissioned in 2005. These ships superseded the two smaller Tromp class frigates, decommissioned in 1999 and 2001. Despite being classified by the Netherlands Navy as frigates, their displacement (6,050 tonnes), complement (202 + 30 aircrew), and role make them comparable to many destroyers. They are similar in these respects to the RAN’s planned Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyers (AWD).  The Netherlands Navy also intends to use the De Zeven Provinciën class in a limited Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) role, having recently awarded a contract for modification of the ships’ Thales SMART-L and APAR radars. According to an article in January’s Proceedings magazine, these modifications are expected to be complete by late 2017. It should be noted that the currently planned modifications only endow the class with the capability to detect and track ballistic missile threats, and do not provide for surface-to-air interceptor missiles.

The De Zeven Provinciën class are armed with five 8-cell MK 41 VLS modules, with a typical loadout of 32x SM-2MR Block IIA (RIM-66L-2) and 8x quad-packed RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missiles. They are equipped with two quadruple-canister RGM-84 Harpoon SSM launchers, an Oto Melara Otobreda 127mm/54 Compact dual-purpose gun, and 2x twin-tube MK 32 Mod 9 torpedo tubes (with Raytheon MK46 Mod 5 torpedoes). Two Thales ‘Goalkeeper’ CIWS, 2-4x browning M2 .50 calibre machine guns, and 4x FN MAG 7.62x51mm machine guns are also fitted. The De Zeven Provinciën class carry either a SH-14D Super Lynx or an NH90 NFH. The Evertsen is currently carrying a Super Lynx for Operation Ocean Shield.

HNLMS Evertsen participated in EUNAVFOR’s Operation ATALANTA in 2009; in one operation her crew were responsible for capturing thirteen Somali pirates who had previously attempted to board the BBC Togo off the coast of Oman. In 2010, HNLMSTromp took part in Operation ATALANTA, including the retaking of the German flagged MV Taipan by Dutch marines. Evertsen has returned to the Horn of Africa as the Netherlands’ contribution to NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield, under the command of Commander Boudewijn Boots, and serves as the flagship of Ocean Shield for Commodore Ben Bekkering, current Commander SNMG1 (Standing NATO Maritime Group 1), and his international staff of 24. She has been involved in several successful counter-piracy actions, including detaining Somali pirates who had hijacked an Omani dhow and its crew, and used the vessel to attempt to board the MV Namrun. The Evertsen carries a Royal Netherlands Marine Corps Enhanced Boarding Element (EBE) as part of its counter-piracy capability. The EBE is made up of operators from the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps Maritime Special Operations Forces (MARSOF), assigned to the vessel for counter-piracy duties. It may also be supplemented by regular marines.

A Formidable Frigate 

The Republic of Singapore frigate RSS Formidable (68) during a formation exercise for RIMPAC 2012.

Meanwhile, Singapore’s Formidable class frigates are considered amongst the most advanced surface combatants in Southeast Asia. Built around a substantially modified version of the French La Fayette class, they feature an advanced stealth design incorporating a range of Radar Cross-Section (RCS) reduction features. The inclined planes of the hull and superstructures, concealment of typical ship’s equipment, low profile housings for armaments, and enclosed sensor mast are chief amongst these. The Formidable class armament includes: an Oto Melara 76mm Super Rapid naval gun, 8x RGM-84C Harpoon SSMs, and 4x 8-cell Sylver A50 VLS containing a mixture of Aster 15 and Aster 30 SAMs. The ships are also capable of firing EuroTorp A224/S Mod 3 torpedoes, and carry a Sikorsky S-70B naval helicopter with ASW equipment (they formerly operated Eurocopter AS-332M Super Pumas).

 

The Formidable class are also highly automated, operated by a complement of only 71 crew (90 including air detachment). By way of comparison, a US Oliver Hazard Perry class has a nominal compliment of 176, an Australian Anzac class a complement of 163, and a French La Fayette class a complement of 141. The Formidable class are designed to operate as the naval centrepiece of the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) Integrated Knowledge-based Command and Control (IKC2) network. Integrating the advanced sensor packages and armaments of the ships to give commanders the ability to rapidly assess the battlespace and respond accordingly was a key design focus for the project. Dr Kenneth Kwok, Programme Director for Information Exploitation at the DSO national Laboratories noted: “The frigate has many state of the art weapon systems and sensor systems, but it is really how you put them together and integrate them into a fighting system that makes the difference”.

 

Six Formidable class frigates were built, with all but RSS Formidable being built by Singapore Technologies Marine (ST Marine) at their Benoi Shipyard, in Singapore. Construction of the class ran from late 2002 until mid-2006, with all ships being commissioned by January 2009. All are currently active, and form the 185 Squadron of the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN). The RSS Formidable was Singapore’s contribution to the forces conducting RIMPAC 2012, operating in conjunction with participants from twenty-one other nations. Singapore’s incumbent Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, has confirmed that a Formidable class frigate (and the attached S-70B) will soon deploy to the Gulf of Aden as part of Singapore’s contribution to CTF-151.

This piece originally appeared as two separate posts at our Aussie partners’ Security Scholar blog, check it out for more photos on the above ship classes. 

Indonesia: Great Power on Australia’s Doorstep?

The following is the first cross-post of an article that originally ran on the site of our new partners at Security Scholar, an Australia-based security blog. First published last month, the relation of Indonesia’s future to Australian maritime security issues was reiterated with three recent hi-profile incidents of Australia-bound refugee vessels in distress in Indonesian waters. We look forward to learning more about the Australian maritime security outlook from our friends down under:

By Natalie Sambhi

Last month at the Australian National University (ANU) Professor Hugh White delivered a solid speech that lucidly and methodically explained why we, Australia, should be considering Indonesia with more care.

Projected to be the world’s fourth largest economy in a matter of decades and increasing in clout as a regional power, if not great power, Indonesia will be a force to reckon with, according to White. As such, many Australians will be forced to overturn their assumptions about Indonesia as a poor and weak country. White implored the audience to consider ways of redefining the bilateral relationship with Indonesia beyond third order issues like drug smuggling, people trafficking, border protection, and counter terrorism. Pointing to further evidence that the relationship was not as robust as Government would have us believe, White pointed to “fault lines” in the relationship caused by Australia’s involvement in East Timor’s independence which, for some time, severed diplomatic relations completely.

Against the backdrop of a shift in the strategic balance in Asia, and as Australia aligns itself towards the so-called “Asian Century”, White invited us to consider whether Indonesia would be an asset or an ally. In his view, Indonesia holds great potential to shield Australia from the threat of major powers in the region, if we get our bilateral relationship right. If we do, then we may start to think about the kinds of Defence capability that would complement the armed forces of Indonesia so that both countries could work towards a kind of “forward defence”.  White wrapped up his speech with five points to improve the relationship: 1) improve DFAT political reporting, 2) focus less on third order issues and more on China, 3) de-emphasise the role of aid in relating to Indonesia, 4) abolish travel advisories (as negative ones have tended to upset Indonesia), and 5) increase the importance of the bilateral relationship in Australian politics.

There are, however, a few extra elements in relation to Australia-Indonesia ties White might have explored in his speech (and I’m sure he would have, given more time), and I would like to take up three of his points to develop these further.

First, perceptions matter. In building his case for cultivating better relations with Indonesia, White used excerpts from Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s 2010 address to the Australian Parliament. In the address, the President underscored mistrust and misperceptions that beleaguered the bilateral relationship in the past. White referred to several parts of the address, but here I have selected the one I think is most salient:

I was taken aback when I learned that in a recent Lowy Institute survey 54 per cent of Australian respondents doubted that Indonesia would act responsibly in its international relations. Indeed, the most persistent problem in our relations is the persistence of age-old stereo-types—misleading, simplistic mental caricature that depicts the other side in a bad light. Even in the age of cable television and internet, there are Australians who still see Indonesia as an authoritarian country, as a military dictatorship, as a hotbed of Islamic extremism or even as an expansionist power. On the other hand, in Indonesia there are people who remain afflicted with Australiaphobia—those who believe that the notion of White Australia still persists, that Australia harbours ill intention toward Indonesia and is either sympathetic to or supports separatist elements in our country.”

It will take some time for these perceptions to erode. But it is equally important that we do not replace them with those that may mischaracterise Indonesia. Let’s take Indonesia’s democracy, for example. Lowy’s poll also states that “62% of Indonesians say democracy is preferable to any other kind of government and there is near universal agreement on three core democratic values – the rights to a fair trial, freely express yourself and vote in national elections.” How this is practiced, however, may be a different story.

A New York Times article warned that Indonesia is no model for a Muslim democracy, citing its mixed human rights record and lack of religious freedom as evidence. Admittedly, the case by the Human Rights Watch author comprises a quick grab of examples presented in highly emotional terms, but the take-home message is clear: Indonesia’s democracy is different. Sure it’s a no-brainer, but it may surprise us to learn the extent to which ethnic and religious criteria shape Indonesia’s elections. That is, Javanese Muslims have, historically, dominated politics and are perceived to be more viable candidates than their non-Javanese, non-Muslim counterparts. Given our Prime Minister is a non-religious, unmarried, Welsh-born woman, that a potential leader is discriminated against in ethno-religious terms is anathema to our political system should give us a moment’s pause for thought.

While we, and others like the US, are turning to enthusiastically embrace the democratic character of our northern neighbour, it would serve us well to carefully appraise the challenges of Indonesia’s ongoing democratic development. This is not to say this is a bar to good relations; quite the contrary. Australia must make an effort to understand these challenges and know how to engage with them without being paternalistic. If Australia and Indonesia are to work closely together in the Asian century, a deep understanding of each other’s political systems and working with them is necessary.

Second, Indonesia will be more than a middle power, and even perhaps a great power. There has been much discussion on whether Indonesia, given current growth rates, could outstrip India’s position in the BRICS grouping. Despite this optimism, according to one commentator (and it’s worth reading Grenville’s post), there are still significant political challenges holding Indonesia back. For one, there appears to be no clear successor to President SBY, with current candidates ranging from former generals like Prabowo Subianto, to Megawati Sukarnoputri, to tycoons like Aburizal Bakrie. Building on the discussion above on Indonesia’s democratic practices, with speculation abound about the nomination of Ani Yudhoyono, wife of the Indonesian President and sister of the Indonesian Army’s Chief of Staff, one wonders about the state of nepotism there. I hope I’m wrong.

This threepart series in last week’s Jakarta Globe exposes the lack of military business reform in the country. Without robust systems of accountability and practices that encourage transparency and due diligence, Indonesia risks undermining its own developments. Reliable maintenance of the rule of law remains problematic. While Indonesia has made attempts to grapple with military reform and eradicate corruption, these articles show that the country still has a long way to go.

As Indonesia grows in wealth and in confidence, it will head down the road of becoming a middle power. But its ability to transform into a great power will be hindered by domestic political challenges, and thus an inability to translate its wealth into military capability commensurate with great power status.

The right kind of President—he/she who can best cultivate the country’s wealth from natural resources, maintain high economic growth rates, reduce poverty, spur reform, maintain Indonesia’s clout within ASEAN, consolidate territorial integrity and domestic security, among other wishlist items—will no doubt help Indonesia comfortably secure a place in the upper bracket of middle power status. But what happens when Indonesia’s future President comes from a cadre of military officers who served in East Timor and who might be Australiaphobic?

Earlier this week, Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia, Greg Moriarty, warned of growing economic nationalism in the country resulting in investment conditions that are not necessarily in Australia’s interests. Let’s hope this trend does not continue.

Third, White stressed the de-emphasis of aid in the relationship. He stated that there is a particular psychology attached to the receipt of aid. While there are many people in Indonesia who live in poverty and need our help, it was no basis for the bilateral relationship or the lens through which we should see Indonesia. As White underscored in an interview last month, it leads Australians to treat Indonesians in a patronising manner. White’s suggestion that we redirect aid money towards sending 10,000 Australian students each year to learn about Indonesia is well-intentioned, but we’d be hard-pressed getting even a third of that number across the education system. But again, I hope I’m wrong.

As one blogger pointed out this week, language study comes from an interest in culture. But it also comes from repeated exposure to the other culture and repeated contact with people. That Indonesia features obliquely in popular soap operas is not indicative that it is part of our thinking. The solution to piquing interest in Indonesian culture will come with the sense that Asia is part of Australia. That is, as continental European faces are as commonly featured in mainstream media alongside Anglo-Celtic ones, familiarity with Asia will come with increased exposure: particularly newsreaders, politicians, business and community leaders, the actors in advertising campaigns, performers, and athletes. Exchanges are useful but they are usually led by travellers and students who are already willing to engage beyond Bali’s beaches. Perhaps Indonesian-Australians could lead the charge, perhaps change will come with time.

It has been 14 years after the fall of Suharto and despite the challenges that are still abound, Indonesia has transformed remarkably. I want to be optimistic about the future of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia, and I am in furious agreement with White about strategic and cultural imperatives that should drive this, but we must be wide-eyed about the challenges that lay ahead.

Natalie Sambhi is a Hedley Bull Scholar in International Relations and a Masters graduate of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University. She currently researches and edits on a freelance basis, and is a contributor and co-editor of Security Scholar