Stratfor Geopolitics Analysis
11 February 2002
Isolated Indonesia Eyes Australia for Support
Indonesia and Australia signed an anti-terrorism cooperation agreement Feb. 7. Though both countries have had relatively serious diplomatic problems with each other in the past, this new agreement will guarantee Indonesia a powerful regional ally as it is increasingly shunned by its Southeast Asian neighbors.
During a visit to Indonesia last week, Australian Prime Minister John Howard oversaw the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two countries on anti-terrorism cooperation. Both sides pledged greater intelligence sharing, training and visits between officials while Howard also promised to provide Jakarta with five small patrol boats to help reduce the number of asylum seekers—many of whom come from Indonesia—heading for Australia.
The thawing of relations between the two comes after two-and-a-half years of frostiness. The recent alienation of Indonesia among its Southeast Asian neighbors is motivating the archipelago to re-embrace Australia. Close contact with Canberra will give Jakarta much-needed military and diplomatic support in the region and will advance Australia’s efforts to gain more strategic influence in the region.
Indonesia has found itself more and more isolated and vulnerable in Southeast Asia. The country’s neighbors are increasingly fed up with Jakarta’s political instability, insurgent movements and internal security problems, which threaten their own security and economic well-being. With a suffering economy, numerous instances of piracy, violent separatist movements and political volatility, Indonesia needs a major ally to maintain what stability it does have.
Howard’s latest visit to Indonesia was his sixth as prime minister. House of Representatives Speaker Akbar Tanjung and People’s Consultative Assembly Speaker Amien Rais both refused to hold official, one-on-one meetings with Howard, showing the level of distrust that still remains between the two countries.
Relations were strained by Australia’s support of the 1999 independence referendum in East Timor, and its decision to lead an international military force for the former province. Indonesian House Deputy Speaker Soetardjo Soerjogoeritno recently claimed that the House received reports implicating Australia in helping to fund non-governmental organizations, likely including pro-separatist groups, in Aceh, East Timor and Papua, according to the Jakarta Post. The Jakarta government has called upon Canberra to support its territorial integrity.
Officials such as Rais have also accused Australia of claiming that its illegal immigration problems were largely due to Indonesia’s inability to bring people-smuggling under control. Howard disputed the allegations, saying the Australian government “had never accused the Indonesian government of being responsible for the illegal trafficking of people” and “unequivocally supports the territorial integrity of Indonesia,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported Feb. 6.
Despite the existing tensions, the prime minister’s visit was largely successful and signals a new period of cooperation. Besides agreeing to cooperate on anti-terrorism, the two sides are to increase military ties over time, Howard said. Cooperation on the refugee problem will also continue, as Jakarta and Canberra co-host an international conference on people-smuggling Feb. 27-28 on the Indonesian island of Bali.
In the economic sphere, the prime minister promised to assist in Indonesia’s efforts to gain more time in its repayment of loans to the International Monetary Fund, Australia’s The Age reported Feb. 8. He also said he would address a trade imbalance favoring his country and pledged $490,000 for Indonesian flood-relief efforts.
The reconnection with Australia could not have come at a better time for Indonesia.
The international war against terrorism has not helped Jakarta’s already strained links with its neighbors. Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines have all arrested Indonesian terrorist elements within their own borders while Jakarta has made no arrests of such forces. Frank Lavin, U.S. ambassador to Singapore, even called on Indonesia to follow the footsteps of Malaysia and Singapore by taking a tougher stance on those suspected of terrorist operations, the Jakarta Post reported Feb. 4.
A spokesman for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, Wahid Supriyadi, countered that the government, unlike Malaysia and Singapore, must follow an Internal Security Act that prevents the detention of anyone without trial and which requires proof that a suspect broke the law before he can be arrested. Whatever the reason, Indonesia’s inaction on the anti-terrorism front has only strengthened the animosity of its neighbors and led to more diplomatic isolation.
These countries are also upset with the lack of security in the waters surrounding Indonesia’s islands, a situation that threatens overall trade in Southeast Asia. The Malacca Straits between Malaysia and Indonesia are a trouble spot where pirates operate on a regular basis. Indonesia has fallen victim to more pirate activity than any other country. Of the 335 pirate attacks in 2001, Indonesia recorded the most with 91, Malaysia’s The Star reported Feb. 4.
These security issues have left Indonesia with few allies in the region. The new anti-terrorism agreements with Australia will at least show that Indonesia is working to solve such problems, and this could help appease the neighbors. Moreover, the cooperation will ensure that Indonesia has a fairly powerful regional supporter in its corner.
For Australia, Indonesia’s desperate need for international support could give Canberra a high degree of influence in the country. Australia is looking to assume more of a security role in Southeast Asia—alleviating some of the burden for the United States. And having such a strategically and economically important player as Indonesia in its pocket would help its case.
West Papua Information Kit:
West Papua referendum petition:
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