Subject: ST: US-Indonesia Ties Far From Cosy

The Straits Times (Singapore) Friday, March 21, 2008

Ties With US Far From Cosy

Bruce Gale, Senior Writer

THE visit of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates to Indonesia last month did not do as much to cement military and diplomatic relations as either country would have liked. In fact, it may be some time before US-Indonesia ties return to where they were during the 1970s and 1980s.

During the Cold War, the US regarded Indonesia as an important anti-communist bulwark. Close economic relations were also encouraged.

But as the threat of communism receded, concerns grew in Washington about Indonesia's human rights record. In 1992, it placed a weapons embargo on Jakarta following the Dili massacre in what is now Timor Leste. Americans also reacted sharply to the 2002 murder of US civilians in Papua. Military ties were not normalised until 2005.

When Mr Gates arrived in Jakarta on Feb 25, he said that Washington was ready to assist in the country's military reform and enhance its defence capabilities. But apart from offering to sell Indonesia six F-16 Fighting Falcon jets and several heavy transport 130-J Hercules planes, he did not offer any new initiative. The most likely explanation for this omission is that the US emissary had nothing concrete to offer.

The Bush administration now sees Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, as crucial to fighting terrorism in South- east Asia. But with a Democratic-controlled Congress placing almost equal emphasis on human rights issues, President George W. Bush faces an uphill battle getting the sort of funding he would like.

In his annual budget request to Congress last month, the US President could only propose US$186 million (S$260 million) in bilateral assistance to Indonesia for next year (US$4 million lower than this year). Of this, a mere US$16 million was for military funding. This was despite the fact that the US leader and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono agreed last year to expand military-to-military relations.

The Bush administration argues that the Indonesian military is undergoing major reforms, withdrawing from politics and moving away from reliance on military enterprises for revenue. But human rights groups oppose increasing military assistance to Indonesia because they believe there has been insufficient change in the military's conduct. Despite all the talk by American officials of improved relations, US law still requires that the human rights records of all Indonesian military officers going to the US for military training be vetted.

Indonesian legislators are similarly leery of forging ties with the US. Not long after Mr Gates arrived, several questioned Washington's motives, noting that the offer to sell F-16s came at a time when Russia and China were also trying to develop military ties with Indonesia.

Others, like Mr Mutammimul Ula, a member of the defence, information and foreign affairs commission in Indonesia's House of Representatives (DPR), sought to portray the US as an unreliable partner. Mr Mutammimul wanted a guarantee that the US government would never again impose a spare parts embargo.

The air force reacted more positively. Vice-Air Marshal Soenaryo, chief of the Air Force's Material Maintenance Command, argued that the F-16s were needed to increase deterrent capability. The new aircraft, he said, could replace Indonesia's F-5E Tiger fighters, which had been in service for almost 25 years.

Initially, Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono was also supportive. But he changed his mind later, telling legislators that the country could not afford the planes. Instead, Indonesia would only consider refurbishing the six F-16 A/B variants that the air force already owned.

Partly as a result of US policies in the Middle East, Indonesians in general remain suspicious of US intentions. This factor, together with the lack of any close historical affinity between Indonesia and the US, has made it difficult for the leaders of the two nations to drum up domestic support for improving relations.

Yet this has not stopped them from trying. Significantly, all of the Indonesian presidents who have taken office after the fall of former president Suharto's New Order regime have visited Washington shortly after taking power.

On balance, it may be argued that Indonesia needs the US more than the US needs Indonesia. About 20 per cent of Indonesian exports go to the US, and American companies play a major role in the Indonesian economy. Moreover, almost 80 per cent of the military's hardware has been produced by the US defence industry.

Yet, while seeking closer ties with Washington, the Yudhoyono government will be careful to preserve Jakarta's neutrality. One such indicator was the announcement last December that Jakarta intends to buy six more Russian Sukhoi jet fighters to add to the four it already has. Another indicator came earlier this month, when Dr Yudhoyono refused to accept telephone calls from Mr Bush ahead of a crucial Security Council vote on sanctions against Iran.

Mr Bush can take some comfort from the fact that the Indonesian President also rejected calls from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As a non-permanent member of the Security Council, Indonesia supported earlier resolutions criticising Iran. This time around, however, it abstained.

Speaking to Antara, Indonesia's official news agency, Mr Marzuki Alie, secretary- general of the President's Democrat Party, put it succinctly: 'We have our own opinion and other countries should respect it.'

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