JOURNAL | COVER STORY By: Juwono Sudarsono
One of the less-remembered facts from the heady days of democratic elections and a new government in 1999 is that Indonesia saw a civilian appointed as the country’s defense minister for the first time. Juwono Sudarsono was a catalyst for civilian supremacy over the Armed Forces, nudging the military to give up its business and political interests, and dramatically increasing defense spending to create a modern and professional fighting force.
Strategic Review spoke with Juwono about the defense and security concerns that will face Indonesia’s next president. He said the nation’s next major defense challenges, aside from growing great-power competition in the Asia-Pacific, will stem from pressing domestic problems including income inequality and poverty.
Future moves by China in the South China Sea could encroach on Indonesian territory under the logic of the nine-dash line China follows in the sea. Does the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) have to revise its strategic planning under the next administration? So far, China has no reason to encroach on the Natuna Islands. But the Indonesian military may have to yield and temporarily tolerate the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy asserting itself near Indonesian territorial waters off Natuna, as long as Indonesia makes it clear that it will not indefinitely tolerate China's desire to widen its “strategic space” within disputed territorial waters.
Our strategic plan remains the same: calibrate Beijing’s desire to widen its “strategic space” within the core area of China’s regional posture, but firmly assert our stance that current international law and legal norms must be respected.
The United States is seeking greater defense cooperation among countries in Southeast Asia. How should the next Indonesian government respond? Is it still possible to remain strictly neutral? The US has remained the main security provider throughout East Asia and the Pacific for the past seven decades, dating back to 1945. Now, the rise of China and the presence of Japan has prompted many members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to since 2006 to redefine the terms and conditions of Southeast Asian defense and security through the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting.
US primacy will remain important, but the rivalry between Japan and China will have to be taken into account. Indonesia remains true to its formal commitment to be independent and free from any great-power alignment, and for domestic political reasons must not be formally allied with the US, much less be part of any Japanese-American containment policy against a rising China.
What are the biggest defense challenges facing Indonesia during the new president’s five-year term? The greatest defense challenge is to constantly rebalance the US, Japan and China so that great-power rivalries will not lead to disruptions or outright armed conflict among them, or among regional countries wishing to lead Southeast Asia. Yet we have learned from experience that good foreign policy starts at home. The greatest challenges we face in Indonesia remain domestic: chronic inequality between the center and periphery, political and economic corruption at all levels, and poverty, particularly comparing Western and Eastern Indonesia.
What challenges will the next president face on domestic terrorism? Is there still a credible threat? So long as the 60 million members of Indonesia’s middle class do not care about lifting up the 180 million people from the lower classes who are living in the slums and regional backwaters, there will always be a reason for the deprived to resort to violent upheaval and terrorism. Remember John F Kennedy's warning in 1962: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
What should the next president do about increasing defense spending and modernizing the TNI? Are you satisfied with the pace of defense spending and modernization during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono? Defense spending in conventional terms – the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines – should focus on support systems such as transport vehicles, transport ships, transport planes. The seas within Indonesia are vitally important to solving our domestic logistical problems, in particular in far-flung regions. Only after that should we emphasize strike capability.
President Yudhoyono’s genius was in developing a minimum essential force by increasing the military budget from $2.6 billion in 2004 to the current $8.5 billion for 2014. This is the importance of strategic patience in our defense doctrine. We should emphasize domestic economic sustenance over defense as we improve our economy, and as we attempt to maintain technological parity with our partners in ASEAN.
Distinguished scholar and civil servant Juwono Sudarsono served as minister of defense under President Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001) and under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-2009). He is a member of Strategic Review's advisory board.