Indonesia’s defence build-up must be viewed in the right light
In recent years, Indonesia has been working on upgrading its National Armed Forces (TNI) to reach the goal of Minimum Essential Force (MEF) status by 2024. While what exactly constitutes a MEF has not been clearly defined since it was first announced almost a decade ago, the TNI has since been stepping up its acquisition of new capabilities. This includes the purchase of main battle tanks, sonar-equipped anti-submarine helicopters and rocket artillery.
To support further investments in new equipment, Indonesia plans to increase its defence budget.
Though its 2015 defence budget of 95 trillion rupiah (S$9.63 billion) is 14 per cent higher than last year’s, it makes up only 0.8 per cent of the gross domestic product of South-east Asia’s largest economy. Jakarta plans to almost double this to 1.5 per cent, which would see its defence expenditure go up to US$20 billion (S$26.6 billion) by 2019, thereby surpassing Singapore as the top spender on defence in the region in absolute terms.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the prospect of a resurgent, assertive TNI has sparked some concerns of a regional arms race and heightened tensions. Such fears have been compounded by Jakarta’s recent robust power play, where foreign fishing boats caught poaching have been blown up and intruding aircraft have been forced to land by Indonesian warplanes.
However, at the same time, it is easy to overstate Indonesia’s ambitions and paint a somewhat alarmist picture. To put things in perspective, it is useful to remind ourselves of a completely different set of strategic concerns only 17 years ago.
In mid-1998, the prospect of a weak TNI unable to protect South-east Asia’s largest economy stoked fears amongst security analysts in Singapore that Indonesia would be Balkanised.
Balkanisation — the violent fragmentation of a state into smaller regions, similar to what happened to the former Yugoslavia — was a buzz-word then.
The picture in Indonesia in May 1998 was bleak. From Aceh to Papua, unrest broke out because of an incendiary mix of historical, racial or religious flashpoints. In Jakarta, angry mobs torched property in Chinatown and were also said to have raped many Indonesian-Chinese women.
Hotel bookings in Singapore soared as Indonesian Chinese fled here to escape the chaos.
Singapore policymakers quickly mapped out how the region might look if Indonesia fell apart.