US President Barack Obama dropped a bombshell on the eve of his visit to Indonesia where he will be attending the East Asia Summit (EAS). He announced a deal with Australia that would practically turn the port city of Darwin into a US military base.
For Indonesia, or for most Southeast Asian nations for that matter, the move is not exactly the kind of signal that they are looking for in terms of greater US engagement with Asia.
Obama, who is visiting Bali as the US makes its debut appearance at the EAS, announced the decision during his visit to Australia. As many as 2,500 marines will be stationed in Darwin, effectively adding to the US’ military bases in that part of the world, on top of its current presence in Okinawa, Japan and in South Korea.
The presence of the US base just south of Indonesia is simply too close for comfort. While Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said Indonesia had been informed of the decision by Australia, he was right in insisting on
more transparency about the security scenarios being envisaged by both Australia and the US in order to prevent misunderstandings and tensions.
The base is purported to strengthen the US’ power projection in the region given rising tensions in the South China Sea between China and some smaller Southeast Asian states concerning territorial claims. Obama’s choice of timing in making the announcement now is bound to stir up controversy.
The EAS has been expanded this year to include the US and Russia in recognition of the geopolitical interests of these states and the role they can play in a rapidly emerging Asia. But there are many fruitful and less threatening ways of increasing US engagement other than building a greater military presence. As host of the EAS, Indonesia should make sure that the forum is not turned merely into a discussion of regional security but should also include other, more important human security issues.
As for the choice of location for the base, has the US heard the expression “not in my backyard”, or NIMBY?