Defense Donald Rumsfeld, security issues in the East Asian region are starting
to look much clearer. A widespread belief that Indonesia is edging towards
disintegration should now be laid to rest.
It has become a truism of secessionism that, to be successful, it often requires
the support of an active external sponsor. Some examples of successful
secession, and fragmentation, include Panama from Colombia (supported by the
United States), Bangladesh from Pakistan (India), the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia
(U.S. and NATO) and East Timor (Portugal and the United Nations).
Indonesia has numerous trouble spots but only two, Aceh and West Papua,
officially Irian Jaya, have the clear goal of secession. Dissent in Riau, near
Singapore, is largely rhetorical and the recreation of Republic of South Maluku
in Ambon is a faint echo of the secession movement of 1950 amplified by communal
It has been suggested, however, that the success of one secessionist movement in
Indonesia could, domino-like, trigger more. This raises the issue of external
support. The only country that has the capacity to meaningfully support
secession is the U.S. To do this, the U.S. would need to be convinced that its
strategic and economic interests were best served by such a political
On his recent visit to Indonesia, Rumsfeld said that he would like to see
renewed military aid to Indonesia’s armed forces, the TNI. This is despite a
lack of meaningful reform of the TNI and indeed its reinvigorated political
influence, as well as the fading of an already dim prospect of trial for those
responsible for the carnage in East Timor in 1999.
The reason for U.S. support of the TNI is because the Bush administration has
decided that, as a part of its renewed focus on East Asia, the unity of
Indonesia serves a greater strategic purpose.
Despite the superficial friendliness of the visit to Beijing by Powell and
Rumsfeld, China is now seen by the U.S. as the major strategic threat, not just
to Asia but to the world. Russia, India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan already
flank China, and Southeast Asia completes the circle.
There has long been a view in Southeast Asia that an economically enhanced China
would throw its weight around in a region it has historically considered its
"backyard". Hence the states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
developed the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), as well as a less formal strategic
coalition. The lynchpin of ASEAN, and of a China-containment coalition, is
Indonesia. And Indonesia has been a useless strategic partner since 1997.
If within Indonesia, Aceh and West Papua were successful in their bids for
independence this would not necessarily destroy the core of the state. However,
as two of the largest sources of state revenue from oil and minerals
respectively, their loss would further damage Indonesia’s still moribund
Even more so than East Timor, their loss would send Indonesia’s political elite
into a rage, which despite everything has remained committed to the idea of
maintaining a united (and unitary) state, and somewhat paranoid about external
desires for fragmentation (from Australia). This sentiment remained strong under
the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid, and has been further enhanced by the
election of Megawati Sukarnoputri.
ascension of Megawati to the presidency poses more questions than can easily be
answered. Will reform of the TNI be halted and its political role enhanced? Will
Megawati, a secular nationalist, be much tougher on recalcitrant provinces such
as Aceh and West Papua, than her predecessor. Will she be able to keep her
coalition of political support together any longer than Wahid, given her
unpopularity amongst traditional muslims? How will she deal with a Parliament
which is now willing and able to assert its authority over the president? And
will the return to power of many Suharto cronies and their allies prevent much
needed reform of the nation’s economy, particularly its banking and finance
sectors? Sceptics see Megawati as a short term leader, beholden to the armed
forces and the old financial elite for her new position. To them, her rise from
Vice President to President seems like ‘back to the future’.
another country supported secession, particularly in Aceh, Indonesia could be
expected to question the repayment of existing U.S.-backed loans from the
International Monetary Fund (IMF) and would bring the ARF undone. It would also
further limit the compromised use of the Straits of Malacca, and probably close
the main Indian-Pacific Ocean nuclear submarine passage of the Ombai-Wetar
Straits in East Nusa Tenggara.
this end, a united Indonesia with a mollified political elite all under the
watchful eye of a re-armed TNI fits the larger U.S. game plan much better.
Australia’s primary concern in this is securing the border between East and West
Timor, and this was no doubt part of Powell and Rumsfeld’s trade-off with the
TNI. Thus assured, Australia is even more strategically dependent on the U.S.,
which may partially explain Canberra’s curious support for Bush’s National
Missile Defence (NMD). Australia is also likely to become even more outspoken in
its support of Indonesia’s existing territorial integrity, despite the
experience of East Timor in 1999, and regardless of domestic popular concerns
about human rights violations in the republic’s eastern and western most
with support for Suharto’s New Order during the Cold War, such a political
scenario will not resolve Indonesia’s many regional problems, but rather screw
the repressive political lid back down again. In the greater strategic game
there remains a school of thought which believes that repression is acceptable.
*The authors teach international politics at Deakin University in Australia.
Lecturer in International Relations
School of Australian & International Studies
221 Burwood Highway
Burwood Victoria 3125