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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.

Indonesia’s defence build-up must be viewed in the right light

Indonesian Army’s Kopassus special forces. It is most likely that even with a strengthened TNI, Indonesia’s modernised military will be spread rather thinly across the vast expanse of territory it

has to defend. Photo: Reuters

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.

Preparations were made should the worst happen.

By February 1999, metal fences topped by razor wire cordoned off a third of St John’s Island. The plan was that if the situation took a turn for the worst and illegal immigrant boats headed this way, the island could securely house about 10,000 people with food, healthcare and sanitation away from mainland Singapore. Thankfully, that standby plan was not needed.

At a tactical level, Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) fast-landing craft practised how to intercept small boats. This was a new and improvised role for the RSN’s Fast Craft Squadron, which had been mainly trained, organised and equipped to support beach landing and coastal hook operations by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

If these drawer plans had been put into action, the geostrategic landscape of South-east Asia would have become more unpredictable.

The impact on Singapore would have been significant because an unstable Indonesia would have had negative spillover effects on the tiny city-state.

The Singapore economy would have suffered, as jittery foreign investors take stock of a possible meltdown in regional stability. Prices of basic foodstuff could have spiked, given that Indonesia is the largest supplier of fish and the second-largest pork supplier to the Republic. Air traffic to Changi Airport could also have been adversely affected, as airlines try to avoid overflying an unstable region.

It does not take an active mind to figure out the impact that disorder in Indonesia would have on Singapore’s stability, growth and prosperity.

REINFORCING A HARD TRUTH ON SINGAPORE

As we mark the 17th anniversary of the May 1998 unrest in Indonesia this week, it is timely for those who fret about a resurgent TNI to reflect on the alternative scenario.

The reality today is that TNI will ride on Indonesia’s economic growth to beef up its arsenal in the coming years.

Indonesia has underinvested in defence for many years and it is not surprising that it is playing catch-up now to modernise its hardware. At the same time, President Joko Widodo has sought to boost his credentials by projecting Indonesia as a maritime power in the region and pledging to strengthen the country’s naval capability.

He has also voiced his determination to revolutionise the country’s defence industry to move Indonesia towards self-reliance in military equipment.

In truth, it is most likely that even with a strengthened TNI, Indonesia’s modernised military will be spread rather thinly across the vast expanse of territory it has to defend.

TNI cannot afford to concentrate its firepower primarily on conventional warfare, as this means risking instability fomented by sea piracy and non-state actors that are out to exploit security weaknesses.

This is the strategic conundrum Indonesia’s security planners face, owing to the sheer size of its country and age-old flashpoints.

Ultimately, the debate on the challenges posed by a strong or weak TNI also reinforces a hard truth Singaporeans have been reminded of time and again — that our tiny city-state, which has no strategic hinterland for us to fall back on or natural resources to draw upon, is a price-taker in regional and world affairs.

The Republic’s outsized role in global diplomacy, as evidenced by the recent tributes voiced by world leaders in memory of our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, can only do so much to assert Singapore’s value to and relevance in global affairs.

When it comes to the crunch, it is a strong SAF and a united people that the nation will have to depend on.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

David Boey, a member of the Ministry of Defence’s Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence, blogs on defence issues at kementah.blogspot.sg.

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