Sunday, December 18, 2011

US troops in Australia: What should Indonesia do?

US troops in Australia: What should Indonesia do?
Untung Suropati, Jakarta | Thu, 12/15/2011 7:56 AM
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US President Barack Obama’s announcement of the deployment of 2,500 US troops to Darwin, Australia, only a few days before attending the East Asia Summit in Indonesia has made some countries uncomfortable.

China — although briefed by Australia beforehand — immediately reacted by questioning the appropriateness of having US marines in Australia. That China would react came as no surprise. Many saw this arrangement as part of a US plan to balance China’s rise as well as strengthen its role in the region.

Indonesia was not very excited, either. Right after the announcement in Canberra, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told the press that the arrangement would generate a “vicious circle of tension and mistrust’’.

One of Indonesia’s top newspapers wrote in an editorial that the US presence was “first and foremost” intended to show China that it still had the wherewithal to face a rising power, and that the US would prevent any possible military conflict along sea-borne trade routes, especially in the South China Sea.

The Indonesian Military (TNI) also displayed its concern. Adm. Agus Suhartono, the TNI chief, worried about the possible presence of fleets of both the US Navy and Royal Australian Navy in Indonesian waters for joint exercises in the future. The TNI is currently conducting an analysis on the possible impact of such arrangement.

Although Obama personally assured China and Indonesia during the East Asian Summit that the aim of the arrangement was to ensure regional security and support humanitarian operations, some analysts have expressed concern that this might “promote” a naval arms race. China might react by strengthening its naval forces, which in turn would force neighboring countries to follow in its footsteps.

There is little wonder why the US is so keen to take back its dominant role in the Asia Pacific region after focusing most of its military power and money in Afghanistan and Iraq for some time. Around US$5 trillion worth of commerce flows though the western Pacific; $1.2 trillion of it belongs to the US.

Trade is not the only US interest in the region. In its report in 2008, the US Energy Information Agency estimated that the South China Sea might hold around 230 billion barrels of oil deposits. On the other hand, China — with its remarkable and yet at times frightening economic development — will require an abundant supply of energy and the South China Sea is just right around the corner.

Another dominant reason is China’s rise in economic and military power. There have been various reactions from countries in the Asia Pacific region, most of whom are cautious or wary, including those with maritime boundary disputes with China.

The US has never been shy in expressing its concern over China’s military buildup and its “unknown” military budget. With heightened tension in the South China Sea between China and other disputing countries, most of whom are members of ASEAN, the world is watching how China will react after around 2,500 US Marines are deployed to Darwin in mid-2012.

China is acting calm in commenting on this arrangement. At the same time, China and ASEAN have agreed on discussions on the South China Sea Code of Conduct (CoC). This is positive breakthrough in the settlement of the South China Sea dispute. However, we should continue to monitor China’s actions related to US presence, not only in the short term, but also long term.

Although the US has made it clear that its presence is not intended to interfere with the South China Sea dispute settlement, it is vital not to underestimate the importance of US interests in the region. Further, one of the claimant states is also an important US partner in the Southeast Asia region. The US may not interfere in a direct way but still its influence could be felt through allied or friendly countries.

What should we do then? Indonesia is a non-claimant state in the South China Sea dispute however we are in the middle of two key
players in the region: China and the US. With the possibility of foreign naval fleets moving in our waters, Indonesia should first carefully calculate how it should move between these giants.

First, a thorough analysis on possible impacts on a number of areas, including the economy and security should be done among related government agencies. Second, Indonesia should play a key role in promoting the advancement of the CoC discussion to ensure stability in the South China Sea. Third, there is a need to increase the security of our waters through the Indonesian Navy.

The Navy should also enhance current cooperation with Australia, China and the US. As a member of ASEAN, Indonesia could also use the association’s leverage with China, Australia and the US. The signing of Bali Concord III would be one of our fundamental principals in this issue.

There are two important keywords: maritime security and cooperation. Maritime security is one of the main pillars of globalization, international trade and energy security. It cannot be achieved by one country without cooperation from neighboring countries or countries in the region.

The South China Sea dispute might disrupt regional maritime security if claimant states do not play by the agreed rules. One of the reasons the US is present in the region is also maritime security. The current cooperation mechanisms —
bilateral, trilateral and multilateral —should be the basis of how we cope with this issue. Further analysis and discussion is needed, not only with other countries, but also within our mechanisms.

Inability to move among these giants will be a loss for Indonesia. The nation’s strategic geographical position requires us to comprehend our surroundings. The US will never let China play a bigger role in the Asia Pacific. China will continue to rise, playing a bigger role in the region every single day. It is up to Indonesia to determine how it would stand in the region.

How we react to the Darwin arrangement would be crucial to how we position our country in the region.

The author is a graduate of the US Naval War College, Naval Command and College Class of 2009.

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