Stirring from Beyond the Borders? American Military Assistance and Defense Reform in Indonesia

Evan A. Laksmana | Jakarta, July 2011

* This is actually an old working paper I wrote over a year ago, which I didn’t know was already published until recently.

“Indonesia is the largest country in the world that the United States knows very little about” This is the cliché that observers often cite when discussing the tumultuous history of US-Indonesia relations over the past sixty years. The rapprochement, and some would say deep re-engagement, between the two countries in recent years however may have finally dispelled that notion.

Following a rocky and often tense relation during and immediately after Indonesia’s 1998 democratic transition that saw the downfall of President Suharto, a long-time close ally of Washington, the bilateral relations went on a roller coaster ride. It first hit rock bottom when the East Timor post-referendum violence, the ensuing embargo on all forms of US security assistance, and the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq took relations at both the elite and public levels to a new low. But after the 2004 Tsunami, and following the massive amount of US assistance and humanitarian relief, things started to pick up.

Not only has public opinion in Indonesia soared favorably afterwards, but also by 2005 and 2006, many, if not most, of the US embargo on security and military assistance to Indonesian security forces were lifted or waived. On the hardware side, there were no more any restrictions regarding the sales of lethal weaponry, nor were there any embargo on spare part sales for many of Indonesia’s major weapons inventory. The training programs under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) was also restored by then and has been slowly increased annually since. Finally, in late 2010, both countries agreed to and signed the Comprehensive Partnership Agreement designed to boost ties in all major sectors, including education, economy, climate change, science and technology, as well as security and defense.

The last component on security and defense forms a significant part of these newfound engagements between the two countries, especially those related to American military assistance for Indonesian security forces (both military and police). Furthermore, the available press accounts and literature seem to suggest that the IMET programs and other similar security cooperation seem to dominate US military aid to Indonesia. Some observers have attributed this to the strategic significance of cooperating with the Indonesian military in the wake of the global war on terrorism and how Southeast Asia had rapidly become the “second front” in that war after 9/11.2 While this may form a significantly large part of the reason, Indonesia’s geopolitical, geostrategic, and geo-economic significance, as well as the many aligned preferences of both countries, provides the other half of the story.

This paper however does not seek to fully account for the restoration of U.S.-Indonesia military relations, but instead aims to assess and consider the security component of the new re-engagement, especially those pertaining to American military assistance to the Indonesian Defense Forces (TNI). Specifically, it seeks to address two broad questions:

(1) why the US chose to engage the TNI using military assistance they way they have in recent years,

(2) given the context of Indonesia’s ongoing defense reform process, whether US military assistance would assist the process and how.

In addressing these questions, this paper will need to review US military assistance programs in general and to Indonesia in particular. It will also need to assess the trends and challenges facing US military assistance in terms of instilling democratic civil-military relations and improving Indonesia’s defense reform.

Full text of the paper can be downloaded here

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