Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

A Glass Half Full: Indonesia-U.S. Relations in the Age of Terror

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

A Glass Half Full: Indonesia-U.S. Relations in the Age of Terror

Article excerpt

Introduction

In July 2003 five U.S. F-18 Hornets ventured too far into Indonesian airspace over Bawean Island in the Java sea and locked onto the Indonesian F-16s sent to intercept them. That the U.S. Ambassador, Ralph "Skip" Boyce, was summoned by Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to explain the incident is not surprising. Ambassador Boyce promised that the U.S. Air Force would not fly over Indonesian land in the future without permission. However, below the level of cabinet, the incident ignited a heated debate. Some Indonesian members of parliament used the opportunity to deliver anti-U.S, speeches, with some even calling for sanctions against the United States. A number of members also posited the theory that the United States was flexing its muscle out of displeasure over Indonesia's recent decision to purchase some Russian aircraft for the Indonesian Air Force. These politicians used the incident, it appears, to capitalize on anti-U.S, sentiment in the country to improve their political fortunes. The incident demonstrates the careful manner in which Indonesia-U.S. relations must be managed, particularly in light of an emerging distrust of American intentions amongst the Indonesian population.

This article touches on some of the key themes and incidents that have emerged in the Indonesia-U.S. relationship in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (1) The impact of public opinion in Indonesia, keenly felt on the foreign policy process after the fall of Suharto, has been to constrain the actions of the Indonesian government in the types of support it can offer the United States. The Indonesia U.S. relationship is complicated by distrust from the past (nationalist concerns) and suspicion that the U.S.-led war against terrorism is an attempt to advance American power and undermine the Islamic world (anti-colonial concerns). Some media commentators have spoken of a "pendulum" in Indonesia-U.S. relations, whereby there is both cooperation and discord in the relationship. U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have heightened sensitivities, as have pressures for accountability and human rights improvement. At the same time the Megawati government has cooperated with the United States in tackling the terrorist problem within Indonesia, especially after the terrorist attack in Bali in 2002.

Although the United States already regards Indonesia as strategically important in the war against terrorism, Indonesia is assuming a new relevance. The United States may now be paying more attention to Southeast Asia--with Indonesia featuring prominently--than at any time since the end of the Vietnam War. However, the U.S. government is hamstrung in the type of support that it can offer Indonesia, given constraints from the U.S. Congress on military-to-military relations, and rising anti-U.S, sentiments within Indonesia. Nevertheless, Indonesia is cited by U.S. officials as being crucial in the war on terrorism in two ways. First, Indonesia is viewed as a moderate Muslim majority country, whose toleration and democratization are hailed by Paul Wolfowitz, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense (and often the Bush administration's leading voice on Southeast Asia), as a "model of moderation." (2) In the aftermath of September 11, the U.S. obtained an important official condemnation from the largest Muslim country. Second, Indonesia has had its own problems with a "homegrown", but externally linked, terrorist group known as Jemaah Islamiyah. Washington worries that lack of state capacity will mean that Indonesia will be seen by terrorist groups as a haven. In seeking to deny haven and sanctuary to terrorist groups, Indonesia is one of the countries mentioned by U.S. officials as a prime area of concern.

Indonesia-U.S. cooperation in the war against terrorism has been difficult since it first emerged as an issue in the relationship. The Indonesian authorities have made significant progress in addressing the terrorist problem, but until the Bali blast in October 2002, key members of the Megawati administration and the Indonesian military were arguing that there was no international terrorist problem in Indonesia. …

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