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Finding Friends in the Danger Zone By: Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 17, 2006

Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy behind India and the U.S., has impressed the Bush administration recently with its efforts to adopt democratic reforms, combat terrorism, fight drug smuggling and end widespread military corruption. Led by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who took office after winning election in September 2004, Indonesia has become an important part of Washington’s evolving foreign policy strategy in Southeast Asia.

Bilateral relations between Washington and Jakarta, however, haven’t always been so friendly. Over a decade ago, Washington severed relations with Jakarta, due to human rights violations related to the country’s bloody crackdown on pro-independence protesters in East Timor. An estimated 200,000 Timorese reportedly died from disease, famine and fighting as a result of the conflict.

But Indonesia-U.S. relations improved dramatically following the deadly 2004 tsunami, as Washington responded quickly by providing military transports, medical equipment and emergency funds to Jakarta. As a result, Indonesia’s Muslim news media, no fan of the U.S., was unusually kind, noting that the U.S. had done much more to aid Indonesia than other Muslim countries during the crisis.


In November, the U.S. followed its humanitarian actions in Indonesia by announcing that it would lift an arms embargo that would allow the sale of lethal military equipment, reversing a fourteen year policy. In making the decision, the U.S. State Department exercised its authority under a law passed in early 2005 by the U.S. Congress that allowed the department to waive conditions on U.S. military sales to Indonesia.


Regardless of the Bush administration’s new perspectives concerning Jakarta’s demonstrated human rights, military and political progress, serious questions concerning the growing bilateral relationship still remain.


First, Indonesia’s Muslim majority, 88 percent of the country’s total population, is unpredictable. Just last month, hundreds of angry Muslims attempted to storm the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta to protest caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Carrying banners reading “We are ready to attack the enemies of the Prophet,” the protesters smashed windows and tried to break through the U.S. compound’s gates. Indonesia’s Muslim majority has also been angered by what it considers an illegal invasion of a Muslim country, Iraq. In an unsettling development, it was recently reported that the local Aech provincial government had begun to vigorously enforce Sharia, or Islamic Law, using “Sharia police” to flog innocent citizens and openly harass young women.


Second, Indonesia could be an economic risk for the U.S. Jakarta sorely needs targeted assistance to address its economic development problems. Prospective foreign investors have stayed away because of government corruption, a weak legal system and a frail banking sector. In addition, Al-Qaeda linked terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyyah remains a disturbing presence in the country after attacks against foreign interests in Bali in 2001 and 2005 and Jakarta in 2003.


Adding to its economic woes, few roads or bridges have been built in the country since the 1997 Asian financial crisis and its electrical grid is in serious disrepair. The country’s promising energy sector requires enormous investment to modernize and expand. Jakarta admitted last year that it would need $150 billion over a five-year period to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, saying it could only fund 20 percent, or approximately $30 billion, of that sum.


Third, Jakarta’s growing defense relationship with Russia is a concern. At the November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Yudhoyono met secretly to discuss defense cooperation and the transfer of technology. Afterward, it was announced that Russia would work closely with Indonesia to modernize the country’s defense industry.


In February, Indonesian officials signed a tentative $122 million agreement with Russia to build a space launch center on the island of Biak off the coast of Papua New Guinea, with a final agreement to be signed by President Yudhoyono in a June visit to Moscow. President Yudhoyono’s agenda for his Moscow trip will also include discussions concerning the planned purchase of 12 Russian Sukhoi fighter jets, as Jakarta looks to replace its small fleet of non-functional and aging U.S. F-16 fighters.


More disquieting to western observers, Russia agreed in January to provide a total of 12 submarines, including 6 Kilo-class submarines, to Jakarta before 2024. First Admiral Abdul Malik Yusef of the Indonesian Navy stated in early 2006 that combat submarines are strategic armaments that would allow the country to maintain security in its territorial waters. “They [submarines] are necessary, since the country is defenseless against the penetration of foreign ships,” he said.


Fifth, the country’s human rights record has improved, albeit only slightly. A recent U.S. State Department report on Indonesia noted that human rights abuses had decreased in the past year; but serious problems still existed, “Inadequate resources, poor leadership and limited accountability contributed to serious [human rights] violations by security forces.” The report went on to say, “Widespread corruption further degraded an already weak regard for the rule of law and contributed to impunity.”  


By waving military restrictions on Indonesia, Washington has given up a great deal of leverage and taken an unnecessary chance – gambling that political and military reforms will continue.


The U.S. must be careful not to rush into convenient diplomatic and military relationships with countries to solve its short-term needs in the war against terror. Favor with moderate Muslim governments that profess momentary ideological allegiances should be approached with extreme caution, since they could ultimately pose a threat to regional and global U.S. national security interests.

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Fred Stakelbeck is a Senior Asia Fellow with Washington-based Center for Security Policy. He is an expert on the economic and national security implications for the U.S. of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence. Comments can be forwarded to Frederick.Stakelbeck@verizon.net.

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