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May 20, 1998 | 05:00 GMT

4 mins read

Foreign Naval Presence Builds Around Indonesia

Australia has carried on with scheduled joint naval and air exercises with the Indonesian military this week, despite that country's apparent impending collapse. Three frigates and a destroyer, approximately a third of Australia's navy, along with three Australian F-111 bombers and a P-3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft, will be joined by a similar number of Indonesian forces in the exercises. The exercises, titled "New Horizons," will take place off the Indonesian port of Surabaya. The Australian government acknowledged the sensitive timing of the maneuvers, but stated that the long-planned exercises, which take place within the two countries' bilateral defense accord, were not subject to internal Indonesian events. Nevertheless, Australia, like other countries, is arranging for the potential evacuation of its citizens from Indonesia on chartered civilian Boeing 747 jets.

Taiwan and Japan have also sent naval forces to Indonesian waters, though not as part of joint exercises. Taiwan has a three ship fleet cruising near Indonesia, for possible use in evacuating Taiwanese nationals from Indonesia. Japan has also dispatched two patrol boats to Singapore for possible use in evacuating Japanese nationals. The two countries have each sent military C-130 transport aircraft and chartered civilian airliners to Indonesia for use in evacuating their citizens.

Malaysia has placed its coastal troops on full alert and has stepped up sea and air patrols to defend against a "possible sneak landing by Indonesians" fleeing the country's unrest, according to the Malaysian Defense Minister, cited in the daily "Nanyang Siang Pau" newspaper. Malaysia has deployed 10 vessels to patrol its waters against any possible mass refugee exodus. Malaysia is also preparing for the possible evacuation of its nationals from Indonesia by ferry or civilian airlines.

Indonesia's near and distant neighbors are concerned about more than just the immediate security of their citizens in the country. Indonesia has a history of externalizing its internal problems, using the nationalism card to trump economic failure. This was especially the case under Sukarno, whose domestic radical populism was accompanied by aggressive, confrontational external politics, targeted in particular at New Guinea and Malaysia. The potential for Indonesia to once again revert to aggressive, nationalistic foreign politics has its neighbors concerned over, among other things, the security of Indonesian waters.

Australia's naval exercises with Indonesia serve two purposes. Australia first and foremost wants stability in Indonesia, and if that can be accomplished through the careful return to and maintenance of the status quo ante, then just as well. However, if Indonesia begins to collapse, Australia is committed to making sure Indonesian instability does not spill over into Australia's sphere of influence, which extends roughly from New Guinea to the Cocos Islands.

Two other potential external impacts of an Indonesian collapse are of critical concern to other countries. The first is the security of foreign firms operating in Indonesia, particularly those in oil and other extractive industries which would be ripe for nationalization. The second is the security of the flow of oil from and through Indonesia. Countries such as Taiwan and Japan, which are highly dependent on Indonesian oil and on Middle East oil passing through the Strait of Malacca, are extremely worried about the potential effect an Indonesian collapse could have on their fuel supply. We note in particular the deployment of Japanese vessels to Singapore, on the Strait. Should that oil flow become threatened, they will be forced to turn, at least in the short term, to Australia to keep the sea lanes open. The nearest significant US Navy presence is the two Carrier Battle Groups committed in the Persian Gulf, while the Seventh Fleet has a frigate and a destroyer deployed in the Philippine Sea. The potential for a constriction in the oil supply, either through the temporary disruption of Indonesian production or through threats to traffic through the Strait of Malacca, while an unexpected boon to Indonesia's cash-strapped OPEC allies, is a nightmare for already economically unsettled Japan and other Asian nations.

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