In Darwin, SBY offers olive branch
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President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is proposing joint disaster exercises between militaries in the Asia-Pacific region in an apparent signal that Jakarta will lower its rhetoric on a potential US drone base and troop deployments to Australia.
Under US President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, the US previously announced plans to station 2,500 Marines near the northern Australian city of Darwin.
Indonesian officials initially said that the deployment would create tension and mistrust.
During his two-day visit to Darwin, Yudhoyono made no mention of the deployment, while suggesting that nations in the region, including China, might join the US in planning disaster relief operations, Reuters reported.
“We hope that the United States, China, and also other countries will also join us in facing possible natural disasters,” Yudhoyono said through a translator after bilateral talks with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, according to Reuters.
“It can engage the militaries of each of the countries in our region.”
Australia has promoted the US Marines’ presence and Darwin’s proximity to Indonesia as useful for emergency relief operations in case of future disasters or emergencies.
Beijing, however, has been wary of Washington’s intentions in the Asia-Pacific region, with hawkish voices in the Chinese military saying that the US has been intent on encircling China and frustrating its rise.
University of Indonesia defense analyst Andi Widjajanto said the initiative might be a breakthrough in the relationship between Indonesia and the major powers in the world.
“There has never been a joint military disaster exercise between our country with only major powers,” he told The Jakarta Post. “It’s a good start at the embryonic stage of making confidence-building measures.”
Andi, however, said that it would be some time before arrangements could be finalized on the forces to be deployed for the exercises.
Indonesia previously participated in a multi-nation military disaster relief exercise, hosting an event in Manado, North Sulawesi, involving 20 countries in 2011.
Andi also said that Yudhoyono’s proposal accorded with the view that the US military base in Darwin was not aimed at countering China, but at enhancing military operations for non-belligerent purposes.
Mahfudz Siddiq, the chairman of House Commission I overseeing defense and foreign affairs, applauded the initiative, saying that the proposal might help reduce tensions in the region. “We need a new approach in military cooperation, other than for the purpose of war,” he told the Post.
In their bilateral meeting, Gillard said that Australia would contribute A$1 billion (US$1 billion) to a contingency loan program for Indonesia, joining Japan, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank for the stand-by loan facility.
Gillard said the contribution would be part of $5.5 billion in contingency loans that Indonesia could access in times of crisis.
Both leaders agreed to strengthen maritime ties to combat people smuggling, following the deaths
of several dozen migrants in two sea disasters near the Australian territory of Christmas Island, which lies closer to Indonesia than it does Australia.
Gillard said that Australian officials would work with the National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) to improve communications between the nations’ vessels and aircraft during sea disasters and would look into an exchange program of search-and-rescue specialists.
“I welcome the strong cooperation we have with Indonesia on people smuggling, including Indonesian law enforcement efforts, against people smuggling syndicates,” she said as quoted by the Associated Press.
Yudhoyono also called on Australia to implement the extradition pact between the two countries that was signed in 1992 and to expedite the release of underage Indonesian fishermen who were victims of people smuggling were currently incarcerated in Australian prisons.
“Up to 215 children have been released and there are still 54 more. We hope they can be released at once,” Yudhoyono said as quoted by Antara news wire.