New Focus On U.S.-Southeast Asia Military Ties

New Focus On U.S.-Southeast Asia Military Ties

February 2, 2006 10:32 am (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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What’s the current U.S. security relationship with the major countries of Southeast Asia?

It varies by country, experts say. The U.S. military has close relationships with the armed forces of Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore. It maintains relations with Malaysia, and is starting to build contacts again with the Indonesian military after many years of politically mandated neglect.

What is the significance of Indonesia?

Its strategic location, importance in the war on terror, and status as the world’s most populous Muslim democracy make relations with Indonesia critical to many U.S. objectives in the region. Security experts say the Bush administration would like to have as close a relationship with the Indonesian military as its does with other Southeast Asian armies; with them, the U.S. military trains foreign soldiers, conducts joint military exercises, and offers an array of other assistance.

What’s the history of the U.S. military relationship with Indonesia?

The United States has had a difficult relationship with Indonesia’s military for years, mainly over accusations of human rights abuses committed by the army during the dictatorial regime of former President Suharto (1967-1998). In 1990, Indonesian soldiers were blamed for the killing of 300 civilians at Santa Cruz in East Timor; two years later, the United States halted military assistance to the country after reports of further human rights abuses by Indonesian troops in East Timor. The ban continued through a decade of concern over the army’s role in violent incidents, from the murders of protestors in East Timor in 1999 to the deaths of two American teachers in a 2002 armed ambush in Papua province. However, in 2005, the State Department certified that Indonesian cooperation in the investigation into the killings had met Congressional conditions, which opened the door for the resumption of U.S. military training funds and the one-time sale of non-lethal weapons to Indonesia. Congress last year also provided limited foreign military financing for the Indonesian Navy.

The Bush administration had long pushed to be allowed to give military aid to Indonesia, a major front in the war on terror. Administration officials increased their involvement after the peaceful 2004 election of current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who campaigned on a reform platform. "The Bush administration’s argument is that now we have a president in the region who wants to do the right thing, and we should support him," says Blair King, senior program manager for Indonesia at the National Democratic Institute and author of a forthcoming CFR Special Report on Indonesia’s Papua province. A State Department official experienced with Indonesia says the renewed military funding is both a vote of confidence in Yudhoyono’s ability to reform the military and an investment in his future success in that task.

Is the Indonesian military reforming?

Slowly, some experts say. Under Yudhoyono, himself a former general, the military has taken steps to crack down on corruption and illegal activities condoned by the military such as smuggling and drug cultivation. He is also refocusing the military on external security instead of its longtime emphasis (under Suharto) on maintaining internal stability.

What prompted the change in U.S. policy?

A senior State Department official says many of the new training and funding programs were authorized after U.S. officials trying to coordinate tsunami relief efforts with Indonesian military officers found them lacking in an array of necessary skills, from the English proficiency required for air traffic control to basic soldiering duties. In addition, the longtime U.S. ban on the sale of military parts to Indonesia had left the country’s small fleet of C-130s grounded for lack of spare parts; this prevented Indonesians from flying aid into areas affected by the tsunami.

Does the U.S. offer assistance to other militaries in the region?

Yes. The United States assists Southeast Asian militaries with everything from training soldiers to providing transport and equipment support for major missions like the relief efforts after the 2004 tsunami. Its efforts include:

  • Malaysia: In the 1990s, Malaysia bought fighter jets and transport planes from the United States as part of efforts to expand and modernize its military. In recent years, the Malaysian government has extended its buying power globally, purchasing Sukhoi aircraft from Russia, submarines from France, and tanks from Poland.
  • Philippines: Once the home of the two largest U.S. bases in Asia (Subic Bay Naval Station and Clark Air Force Base), the Philippines now has none, after the government evicted the U.S. military in the early mid-1990s. Yet experts say the Philippines welcomes U.S. military assistance and training. These activities include U.S. military/civil affairs teams that are particularly active in the restive southern island of Mindanao. That island has never really recognized Manila’s authority, and has been a base of operations for groups sympathetic to al-Qaeda, including the Philippine terror group Abu Sayyaf. U.S. teams train local security forces and build infrastructure.
  • Singapore: Singapore and the United States are expanding their cooperation in defense and security areas, experts say. Singapore’s military conducts joint training exercises with the United States as well as the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) states and countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and India. The United States has access to Singapore military facilities under a 1990 Memorandum of Understanding. A U.S. Navy logistics unit was established in Singapore in 1992, largely in response to the sudden loss of Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines. U.S. aircraft deploy to Singapore for exercises, and U.S. warships visit and berth at Singapore bases.
  • Thailand: There is at least one high-level joint military training exercise per year between the U.S. and Thai armies. Some military experts say this exercise focuses on Army and Special Forces operations, but that its main usefulness is in exposing the Thai military to superior U.S. professionalism and capabilities in intelligence, reconnaissance, and command and control. In 2002, when East Timor gained independence from Indonesia, Thailand contributed troops to the international peacekeeping effort.

How did the Iraq war affect the image of the U.S. military in the region?

It caused severe damage, experts say. The U.S.-led war, widely opposed in Southeast Asia, "had a [very] negative impact on the image of the U.S. military" in the region, King says. Majority-Muslim nations like Indonesia and Malaysia were incensed that the United States, which was telling them to protect human rights and practice democracy and tolerance, committed what they saw as an illegal invasion of a Muslim country. Subsequent revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, and Bagram Airforce Base in Afghanistan further damaged the U.S. image and pushed many moderate Muslims to sympathize with extremists denouncing the United States and the West, experts say.

What about the aid effort after the tsunami?

The U.S. contribution of military transport, medical equipment, and emergency funds after the devastating December 2004 tsunami that killed over 200,000 people did an enormous amount of good for the United States’ image in Southeast Asia. Particularly in Indonesia, which suffered the highest death toll—over 150,000—experts say newspapers that had printed anti-U.S. editorials shifted nearly overnight to praise of the United States. Local commentators noted that, for all its faults, the United States showed up immediately after the tsunami and donated hundreds of millions in relief efforts and aid—in contrast to Arab countries, which did significantly less. The positive effects of the tsunami relief effort continue today, although some countries, including Thailand and Malaysia, are still wary of U.S. foreign policy, experts say. And King says that while "the tsunami [relief effort] had a positive effect on the Indonesian view of America generally," it didn’t specifically affect public perception of the U.S. military, which is still negative in some quarters.

How is China viewed in the region?

It depends on the country. Experts say some Southeast Asian countries—Malaysia and Thailand among them—are neutral toward China’s military buildup, while other nations—including Indonesia, Vietnam, and Singapore—are more suspicious. The extent of the wariness toward China is determined in part by historical relations—Indonesia’s Chinese citizens tend to hold more economic power than native Indonesians, and have long been regarded there with envy and suspicion—and diplomatic conditions. Vietnam shares a border with China, and Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines all contest parts of the Spratly Islands, a chain in the South Asia Sea, with Beijing. But overall, "It doesn’t appear to me that [most Southeast Asian countries] sense a military threat from China," King says. "If there’s a threat perceived, it’s economic"—mostly fears about losing jobs in low-cost production to Chinese factories.

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