A more confident and difficult Indonesia

The warship KRI Usman Harun (right) with other new Indonesian Navy frigates at a shipyard in Britain.

SINGAPORE - It is not surprising that Singaporeans should be disconcerted by Jakarta's decision to name a new navy frigate in honour of two Indonesian marines executed in Singapore for crimes of terrorism.

Most obviously, of course, there is understandable concern about the feelings of people with family and friends who were among those killed in the bombing of MacDonald House in March 1965. This was, after all, an atrocious crime. But perhaps more importantly, it is an uncomfortable reminder of a difficult and dangerous period in Indonesia's relations with its neighbours.

And this reminder comes at a time when questions about Jakarta's future regional policy are inevitably being raised by the profound economic and political transformations under way in Indonesia itself, and in the wider East Asian region.

What kind of neighbour will a wealthier, more powerful and more democratic Indonesia be for us in the more complex, more contested and potentially more dangerous East Asia of the Asian Century?

For Singaporeans, the names Usman and Harun are reminders of the time of Confrontation in the early to mid-1960s. Two Indonesian marines, Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said, were convicted of the bomb attack that killed three and injured 33 in 1965.

In those years - the years of "living dangerously" - President Sukarno tried to take advantage of Cold War rivalries between America and China to expand Jakarta's power and influence over its neighbours, and he was prepared to use terrorism and military intimidation to achieve his ends.

Everyone in our region, Indonesian and non-Indonesian alike, owes a huge debt to President Suharto for his wisdom in abandoning his predecessor's adventurism after he took over from Sukarno, and for his skill in transforming the basis of Indonesia's relations with its neighbours from bullying and intimidation to trust, respect and cooperation within the ASEAN framework which he did so much to promote.

Of course, the same can be said for his counterparts among Indonesia's neighbours. Nothing typifies the tact, forbearance and statesmanship that helped to build stable relations between the giant Indonesia and its smaller neighbours so vividly as Singapore's then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's famous gesture of sprinkling petals on the graves of the two executed marines in Jakarta's Kalibata cemetery.

It was a remarkable gesture, only five years after they had been executed by his government. Mr Lee no doubt understood why it was important for these men to be honoured by the country they had served, even after the policy they had carried out had been repudiated, and why it was important for him to do so too, painful though it must have been for him. This was the kind of statesmanship that turned South-east Asia, in a few short years, from one of the world's most turbulent regions into one of its most peaceful.

But that is now a long time ago.

Today, a new set of leaders faces a new set of challenges in managing our region's relations, and they do it in very different circumstances.

Indonesia today is not the country it was under Suharto's New Order. For 15 years, it has achieved remarkably steady economic growth, even without the major reforms that would make such a difference to its ability to attract investment and realise its immense potential.

Indonesia today is again a rising power in the world, as it was under Sukarno, but built this time not on Sukarno's soaring revolutionary rhetoric, but on the much more durable foundation of solid economic performance.

How it will choose to use this power depends on the new generation of rising Indonesian political leaders, and how they can shape and respond to the popular will through Indonesia's rambunctious version of democracy.

Where will this lead?

Indonesia's neighbours have been very fortunate that since Suharto fell 16 years ago, his successors have stuck to the broad directions he set for Indonesia's regional policy. They have resisted the pressures that inevitably arise in any democracy to promote and exploit jingoism and xenophobia for domestic political advantage.

In the region, many will be watching with great interest to see whether the leading candidates in this year's forthcoming presidential election show the same restraint. It would be unwise to take it for granted that they will.

Even if they do, none of Indonesia's neighbours can assume that its foreign policy will remain essentially unchanged over the coming years.

It will seek to redefine its regional role as its relative wealth and power grow, and as the region itself changes under the influence of the rise of China, the emergence of India, and the inevitable implications for the roles of America and Japan.

No one should be surprised if we see over the coming years the emergence of a more confident, assertive Indonesia, more diplomatically and strategically active on the regional stage, and working not just through the medium of ASEAN, but increasingly as a key independent power in its own right.

There is no reason to assume that such an Indonesia would be threatening to neighbours like Singapore or Australia. But equally, no one should be surprised if this more confident Indonesia is a little harder to deal with, less willing to compromise and more inclined to assert what it sees as its interests.

In a very different context, Australia has seen this new assertiveness in its difficulties with Indonesia over intelligence revelations and the management of asylum seekers in recent months.

Unlike Singapore in the present case, Australia bears much of the blame for these problems, but any long-term observer of the Australia-Indonesia relationship cannot help but be struck by the greater firmness with which Indonesia is responding to these disputes.

Wherever the blame lies on particular issues, the rest of the region as well as Indonesia itself will need to learn to handle better the realities and sensitivities.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.