The Indonesian military would be determined defenders but at present don't have the appetite or capacity to be invaders.
MARINES IN DARWIN: PROTECTION OR PROVOCATION?
It took two years of negotiations to develop the document, which replaced the 1995 formal defense pact. What’s now known as the Lombok Treaty committed both nations to cooperation and consultation in defence and law enforcement, combating international crime and terrorism, and sharing intelligence.
The two countries also agreed they would not ‘in any manner support or participate in activities by any person or entity which constitutes a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other Party’.
Then suddenly last week Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and US President Barack Obama announced that up to 2,500 American Marines would be stationed in Darwin, the largest port in Australia closest to Indonesia. This newspaper described the news as a ‘bombshell’.
Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa had apparently been alerted ahead of the announcement. Did this comply with the Lombok Treaty clause on ‘consultation’? Only if you embrace Australian newspeak where the word has become synonymous with informing others after a cast-iron decision has been made.
That wasn’t the only gulf in interpretation. It seems Australia’s decision to allow heavily armed foreign forces to dig in on the border doesn’t fall into the category of threatening the other's ‘stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity’.
Indonesia appears to differ. Dr Natalegawa, who was educated in the UK and Australia and is no slouch in understanding the subtleties of English, was reported as saying it could create “a vicious circle of tension and mistrust”. In plainspeak this is instability. The Treaty was designed to do the opposite.
Establishing a US base in northern Australia is meant to send a message to India and China, the two growing super-powers. But between those faraway places and the Great South Land lies a lovely archipelago, the world’s third largest democracy. This strategic zone will now have American warships, warplanes, submarines and helicopter gunships on a nearby beach – and Indonesians weren’t asked what they thought.
Perception depends on position. Living a few hundred kilometers northwest of Darwin I have a different view of plans to turn the Northern Territory into an armed camp than when I lived in Perth.
If I was still in my home state (and earlier state of ignorance about Southeast Asia) I might have thought the idea of beefy American soldiers between little me and the land-hungry masses of Asia to be comforting.
Most Australians know about their nation’s empty interior and over-populated neighbours. We’ve grown up fearing the menacing arrows of descending communism believing that only the gallant forces of the Free World could stop the evil Red Tide, just as they halted the Japanese in the 1940s.
But then we matured and it seemed that the gravity theory driving Australian foreign policy had been buried. Wrong. Last week it was exhumed and revived.
It’s been embarrassing trying to explain to Indonesians why a sovereign nation would allow foreign troops to be based on its soil, unless, of course, the host is weak, insecure and subservient to a colonial master.
That’s the obvious logic, and no end of rabbiting on about independent alliances and historical ties will shake local opinion. My friends are just a mite confused – why the US military and not the UK when Australia has the Union Jack on its flag and the Queen’s head on its currency?
It would be easier trying to explain cricket.
The Indonesian media response has been robust with commentators asking how the deal sits alongside the regular pleas for Australians to develop friendly grassroots relationships with the people next door. There’s been much talk of a new Pearl Harbor.
How would Australians react if Indonesia suddenly announced a similar number of Chinese troops being stationed in Bali? Would Canberra accept the “normal bilateral agreement” line? If our Javanese neighbors in suburban Malang invite Ambonese hardmen (the preman usually used for ‘protection’) to settle in and flex their muscles my family would be rapidly reappraising our community relationships.
Does Indonesia have territorial ambitions on Australia? It’s about as impossible to erase this deeply-embedded but absurd fear in the Australian psyche, as it is to convince the electorate that the US will not necessarily dash into the fray should the continent be attacked.
The Indonesian armed forces would be formidable defenders of their land, but don’t appear to have the equipment, funds, or enthusiasm to invade 7.69 million square kilometers. There’s no discernable political appetite for such an insane adventure. Terrorists occasionally add Australia in their visions of a Caliphate but these crackpots are on the fringe of the fringe.
The last test of US resolve in this region came during the 1999 East Timor Referendum crisis when Australia appealed for American involvement. Then president Bill Clinton manoeuvred a few warships but kept them over the horizon. The tension with Indonesia was an Australian problem, and no grunts’ boots were among the international peacekeepers that trod the turf of what is now Timor Leste.
The realpolitik is that future US policy will be based on that nation’s national interests at the time and having a US Marine base in Australia will make not a whit of difference. If Washington decrees these troops will be deployed elsewhere or sent back to their northern hemisphere home, Canberra’s agreements with the US will have no more value than the Lombok Treaty.
In the meantime we Australians have to remain in this region for the rest of our existence. Better Ms Gillard puts her government’s energies into encouraging us to understand and appreciate our neighbours than being matey with the Marines.
If we really must have a US presence, then invite the Peace Corps.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 23 Nov 2011