The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

In the commendable quest to improve relations between the West and Indonesia, the French are oceans ahead.

While the Americans and Australians despatch platitudes from their embassy bunkers, the French are literally sailing straight into inter-cultural communication.

In Surabaya this month, Jean de Muizon, commander of the French surveillance frigate Nivose was explaining his ship’s armaments and abilities to large groups of Indonesian military men, prior to a joint exercise with the Indonesian Navy.

Many looked thoroughly bemused as the French officers were using heavily accented English to describe the ship’s lethal capabilities. Fortunately at least one TNI officer spoke excellent French, and doubtless statistics on weaponry transcend words.

Earlier de Muizon had hosted a party for local dignitaries, business people and others to meet his crew. The event was relaxed and security low key.

It’s the third visit of a French warship to the East Java capital in just over a year. Other foreign boats come and go, but none do it with the style, openness and energy of the French.

And this despite having no historical or cultural ties with the archipelago.

The French may once have been a major colonial power but their overseas holdings have shrunk to specs in the seas. So there has to be another agenda along with the Gallic goodwill – and there is: Trade.

“We’re certainly here to look after our strategic areas and enhance relationships between nations, but I’m also a salesmen,” de Muizon said. “What’s for sale? Everything!”

Of particular interest to the Indonesian military were the frigate’s two Exocet guided missiles (see sidebar), the Panther helicopter that is armed with enough hardware to sink a ship, and the Pielstick diesel engines.

Why so open?

“We don’t feel threatened like the Australians and the Americans,” de Muizon said. “I’m very surprised that the Indonesians I’ve met are well aware that the French are not fighting in Iraq.

“We’re in Afghanistan and have been for a long time. But most of our military activity is in Africa.

“I recognise that terrorists probably tend to group all Westerners together because we look similar. We try not to be aggressive. I let the crew ashore to go and enjoy themselves.

“The French always go downtown. I tell them to behave well and be aware of cultural differences. They got a half-day briefing on Indonesia before we arrived here from Darwin. But drink and women … well, you know. So far, no problems.

“Don’t think we’re just travelling around and having a good time. All our guns are loaded.”

(Actually they weren’t. There were no magazines in the side arms being carried by the sailors controlling the gangway.)

The 3,000 tonne Nivose, named after the fourth month in the discarded French Republican Calendar, is normally based at the island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean. The 90 crew include three women officers. It’s one of six ships assigned to check French overseas naval interests.

This is a broad enough assignment to embrace everything from working with the Australian Navy to watch for illegal fishers in the Southern Ocean (though not to chase Indonesian poachers in the Timor Sea), through to seeing first hand who is doing what and where and why.

After Surabaya the frigate was scheduled to visit Thailand, but the trip was cancelled following the military coup. Instead it went to Singapore and Malaysia, a big buyer of French military hardware.

Indonesia has just reportedly bought 32 French armoured cars for use in overseas peacekeeping missions. The French are the fourth largest suppliers of weapons to the world, behind the US, Russia and the UK.

This is the first ship command for de Muizon, 42, formerly a fixed-wing pilot on an aircraft carrier. Not surprisingly he remains a fan of the floating airfields despite some military strategists claiming they present too big and cumbersome a target in modern warfare dominated by long-range missiles.

One bang and you’ve lost the lot – ship, planes and pride.

Only nine nations have carriers and not all are as big as the US naval cities-at-sea. The little ones have been designed for vertical short take-off and landing planes, the so-called ‘jump-jets’ that don’t need long runways.

“Managing small scale crises around the world is part of the job,” he said. “With a carrier we can get in close to a country and launch our planes without having to get diplomatic clearance.

“Who would have expected that Britain and the Argentine would have gone to war in the 1980s? Or the disintegration of Yugoslavia? We have to understand what’s happening and where. We must always be prepared.

“You can’t say that we’ve seen the last of the big encounters of rival armadas, though that’s unlikely. You never know what’s going to happen.”

(Just a few nautical miles from the Nivose’s berth at Surabaya’s Tanjung Perak port, the Battle of the Java Sea, the largest naval clash of World War II, was fought between the Allies and the Japanese. The Japanese won and invaded Java).


When the British warship HMS Sheffield and support ship Atlantic Conveyor were sunk by French Exocet missiles fired by the Argentineans in 1982, the British came close to loosing the Falklands war.

The French are always on guard against English words invading their language, but this time the positions were reversed. Exocet became an English term for a deadly accurate attack and the missile internationally famous. Not bad for a future sales pitch.

The Exocet (‘flying fish’) was developed in the 1970s as an anti-ship missile and remains popular with navies worldwide. Indonesia is reported to have some in its armoury.

The main rival is the American Harpoon that’s reputed to have a range of 80 nautical miles, almost double earlier versions of the Exocet. The main selling point for the French product is its sophisticated and secret homing equipment.

It’s a ‘fire-and-forget’ missile that turns on its radar late in flight and can allegedly duck and weave.

The latest version of the Exocet is supposed to have a range closer to the Harpoon and is powered by a turbojet. The Nivose apparently does not carry this model in its sealed chamber.

Who knows? Even the friendly French weren’t prepared to be that frank. But The Jakarta Post wasn’t a potential buyer.

(First published in The Jakarta Post Saturday 28 October 06)


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