US-Indonesia military ties robust

US-Indonesia military ties robust

Ever so quietly, pushed along by President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia", the military relationship between Indonesia and the US has gone from the stalemate of an arms embargo in 2004 to its most robust point in decades.

US foreign military sales to Indonesia have rocketed to US$1.5 billion (S$1.9 billion), more Indonesian military men than ever are training in the United States, and the two nations are now involved in 200 exercises and other engagements a year.

Mr Obama's November 2010 visit to Indonesia and the landmark signing of a comprehensive partnership agreement with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono elevated bilateral relations to a more strategic level.

But as the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) noted in a 2013 report, for all that progress, the relationship's importance remains undervalued in Washington - and is often treated with ambivalence by policymakers in Jakarta.

The CSIS report said Washington's Asia-Pacific focus has been too fixated on North Asia at the expense of the rest of the region. Of course, that may well be changing as China continues to alarm its neighbours to the south by stoking tensions in the South China Sea.

Once focused exclusively on counter-terrorism, US-Indonesia ties are now evolving into something much more relevant. When new US ambassador to Indonesia Robert Blake talked to foreign journalists recently, he did not once mention terrorism in his prepared remarks.

The CSIS report called on the US to expand Indonesia's role in joint exercises and broaden the scope. "Including Jakarta as an active participant in US-led multilateral exercises," it argued, "is symbolically indicative of its growing centrality to security in the Asia-Pacific."

The CSIS also wants to see the US put more emphasis on funding and training for Indonesia's navy and air force, something Jakarta is already doing with 62 per cent of its 2010-2015 capital expenditure directed towards those two branches.

There seems to be a significant difference these days in Jakarta's approach to its ties with Washington and Canberra. Despite whistle-blower Edward Snowden's leaks that the US embassy in Jakarta listens in on Indonesian communications, for example, Washington got a free pass compared with the criticism heaped on Australia for doing the same.

After an effective arms embargo stretching from the 1991 bloodshed in then-East Timor to the start of President George W. Bush's second term in 2005, US foreign military sales to Indonesia are back to full throttle - even if Jakarta is varying its sources of supply.

Indonesia is spending US$700 million on refurbishing 24 F-16 C/D fighters, US$700 million on eight AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and about US$12 million on an initial shipment of 45 shoulder-fired Javelin surface-to-surface missiles.

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