Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Indonesian whispers: RI to become China containment?

By Colin Singer and Lauren Gumbs

In Bandung Colin Singer discovered whispers and concerns about stagnating rapprochement between Indonesia and Australia. 

Elections always bring out a consipiratorial mood, but political observers say that Indonesian elites do not relinquish power easily; they just find new sumber daya to maintain their grip.

Soon to be former-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Colin said, is no different in this regard, already positioning himself for an influential retirement by consolidating strategic relationships with the US, UK, Singapore and Australia who seek to use Indonesia to contain China's regional encroachments.

 Colin Singer, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee at the Indonesia Institute, was in Bandung to talk to locals about the election and he said there were plenty of conspiracy theories floating around about SBY's family and cronies trying to disrupt PDI-P’s success.

Frontrunner for the presidency, Joko Widodo, belongs to Megawati Sukarno Putri's PDI-P party, who are viewed as more friendly towards China, whereas SBY is considerably less sympathetic, tacitly acknowledging China as a potentially destabilising regional force.

"When I was talking to political observers I heard a lot of people saying that they do not trust Western motives and that Western powers are keen to use Indonesia as a buffer between South Asia and Chinese influence," Mr Singer said.

"Some sources assert SBY is turning Indonesia in a 'land carrier' for the West to take on China.

SBY has worked hard to gain regional respect and to take the lead in the ASEAN, and as Indonesia is the biggest economy in the ASEAN region, it will be expected to mediate diplomatic standoffs between China and other ASEAN nations.

"People believe that in the lead up to the final days of SBY's last term, his imperative is to protect himself and his family's legacy by reinforcing Western oriented relationships that strengthen resistance to potential Chinese incursions."  

"People believe that SBY is looking to secure Indonesia's domestic scope of legitimacy over resources and territorial sovereignty by trading off its its traditional insistence on multilateral diplomacy for increased regional militarization.

"To that extent SBY needs the support of the Western alliance to secure a UN post replete with  protective diplomatic privileges."

The Asia pivot has seen strategic positioning of military bases and huge expansions of the USA, UK and Australian embassies, out of scale in comparison to their economic and immigration needs. 

The Australian Embassy in Indonesia will be its biggest in the world.

The USA and Australian funded Densus 88 is seen by some as not only a counter terrorism force but as an entry facility for Western special forces. 

Indeed military cooperation has been a core component of good relations between Indonesia and Australia, and superficially one of the first areas rolled back in the wake of the Snowden spying revelations.

In addition, the new Australia–Indonesia Facility for Disaster Reduction is touted by some as a sort of Trojan horse, providing cover for Australian military personnel to transition into a bigger presence.

 It remains to be seen how the next leader of the world's tenth top economy will deal with regional instabilities and with the possibility that Indonesia may have a more belligerent president who would not be as tolerant in the wake of spying and boat turn backs as SBY has been, Abbott is keen to make amends.

While Jokowi is green and it is unknown where his regional political focus might lie as separate to Megawati, Prabowo, a former military man accused of human rights abuses, has asserted nationalist politics more stridently and would certainly oppose sovereign slights whether from China or Australia.

If the rumours about Indonesia being positioned as a buffer are true, the upcoming elections could dash those hopes altogether.

Lauren is Director of Social Media and Marketing at the Indonesia Institute and Colin is Social and Political Director.

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