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.

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Thinking Beyond Kopassus: Why US Security Assistance to Indonesia Needs Recalibrating

Foreign security assistance, in particular the International Military Education and Training (IMET), Foreign Military Sales, and other programs under the auspices of the US Pacific Command’s Theater Security Cooperation, is a keystone in America’s engagement strategy with Asia. Primarily administered by the US Departments of State and Defense, these assistance programs have funneled several billions of dollars worth of equipment, education, and training, along with other forms of “local capacity building” to partner militaries across the region.

Indeed, given the growing strains on the American economy as well as US commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for burden sharing among American allies and partners in Asia is becoming more critical. As such, the United States is increasing its reliance on foreign security assistance to help regional partners tackle their own security challenges. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argues in the May/June 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs, “the effectiveness and credibility of the United States will only be as good as the effectiveness, credibility, and sustainability of its local partners.”

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