The military-to-military relations pursued by the United States and Indonesia in recent years resemble a roller coaster ride. The ups and downs have reflected divergent priorities, which in turn reveal shifts in the strategic environment, international economic integration, and national politics. Issues have ranged from Cold War policy and human rights to counterterrorism, and from political isolationism and economic disaster to a refusal to understand American imperatives.
Relations are often influenced by short-term trends and political correctness, not underlying national interests. The deliberate prioritization of single issue politics by the United States came at the expense of integrated policies toward Indonesia. Today both parties appear to be moving from a breach in military-to-military relations to a cautious policy of reengagement.
Indonesia is important for a number of reasons. It is the fourth most populous nation after China, India, and the United States. In the new world environment it assumes greater significance as the largest and most moderate Muslim country. Its sheer size makes it an important market for international trade and investment. Its location between Asia and Australia and between the Pacific and Indian Oceans could create bridges or barriers to global communication. Since the downfall of Soeharto in 1998, it is struggling to become the third largest democracy in the world.
The United States is vital to Jakarta as well. It is a prime destination for exports and source of foreign investment as well as development capital, either bilaterally or through the American role in international financial institutions.
There is also a symbolic tie between these two multiethnic nations. The United States was a champion of Indonesian independence from the Netherlands after World War II. For this reason and other factors, both countries need relations that are healthy, balanced, and mutually respectful. The military-to-military aspect of that relationship is especially critical because of the role played by the military in Indonesia as the single most effective and strongest element of society. But for over thirty years bilateral relations have risen and fallen according to short-term political priorities.
The United States and Indonesia had parallel though not congruent strategic imperatives in the last half of the 1960s and most of the 1970s. Their military establishments held center stage in defining respective national interests. Military-to-military contact flourished. Other issues did not infringe on that relationship in the case of either country.
In the 1960s, the United States was fully engaged in both Vietnam and a broader policy of winning the Cold War. As part of that strategy, Washington sought advantages around the world, forging close relations with democracies and dictatorships if such links would ultimately contribute to its strategic goals. It was essential to have as many friends as possible in Southeast Asia--either through formal military agreements or relations short of formal treaties--to prevent the expansion of Soviet, Chinese, or Vietnamese power and influence.
These American goals matched Indonesian strategic imperatives. During the mid-1960s the military took center stage after an obscure army officer, Major General Soeharto, rose to power by countering a coup by the Partei Kommunist Indonesia, or Indonesian Communist Party. While this period remains somewhat ambiguous in light of more recent developments, at the time the situation was clear: Soeharto and the army mobilized the nation to crush the communist movement, removed the first president, and began 32 years of the New Order autocracy.
Indonesia needed all the assistance it could get to modernize its armed forces, then largely equipped by the Soviet Union. The defeat of the largest communist party outside the Sino-Soviet bloc made Jakarta a natural candidate for military cooperation with Washington. …