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Jakarta Post

Prabowo's US mission

  • Editorial Board

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, October 13, 2020   /   08:11 am
Prabowo's US mission Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto waves toward journalists as President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (unseen) unveils his new Cabinet on the steps of Merdeka Palace in Jakarta on Oct. 23, 2019. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

After having long been banned from entering the United States for alleged human rights violations, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is finally heading to the country for a working visit on Oct. 1519, upon invitation from his US counterpart Mark Esper. The request implies that Washington is willing to put aside all past problems to forge closer cooperation with Indonesia, amid Washington’s bid to maintain a foothold in Asia and the Pacific vis-à-vis a rising China. The invitation is designed to further discussions on bilateral defense cooperation.

In addition to various aspects of cooperation, it is widely speculated the visit will seal a deal on American-made major weapon systems (alutsista) to modernize the Indonesian Military (TNI), which is in the third strategic plan (Renstra) of the so-called Minimum Essential Force.

The first Renstra covered the 2009-20014 period. By the end of the second Renstra in 2019, the achievement was only 63.19 percent, compared with the targeted 75.54 percent. So, the government is forced to achieve a further 36.81 percent to reach completion by 2024.

There are several reasons for the shortfall, such as the absence of major alutsista procurements in the second Renstra, or difficulties in acquiring certain weapons systems, such as Russian-made Sukhoi Su-35 heavy jet fighters.

The US is using the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) to persuade Indonesia to abandon the Sukhoi contract and to instead buy American warplanes, in line with President Donald Trump’s slogans of “Buy American” and “Make America Great Again”. The Air Force has already revealed a plan to buy two squadrons of F-16 Vipers.

While some parties at home have expressed the hope that Indonesia will buy the F-35 Lightning II stealth jet fighters, it is still an impossibility because Jakarta has not forged an alliance with Washington.

Meanwhile, the Army has shown its interest in the MV22 Osprey tiltrotor hybrid aircraft, although no official request has been made. The Army already operates US-made AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters.

Whatever armaments deal Prabowo may sign during his visit, it must involve local defense companies as stipulated in the Defense Industry Law, such as transfers-of-technology or offset schemes.

It will be a tough sell for Prabowo to get a deal benefiting Indonesian defense companies because Washington seldom provides such opportunities to countries outside its network of allies. Nevertheless, the US may want Indonesia to shift to Washington a bit when facing China, whose “nine-dash line” claim overlaps with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the North Natuna Sea, on the southern fringe of the South China Sea.

While Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, and has no territorial disputes with China, there were repeated skirmishes on the EEZ between them.

Perhaps the Navy and the Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) can become the recipients of Washington’s arms transfers, despite Bakamla not being under Prabowo’s purview. Shifting to Washington, however, may prove a headache for Indonesian policymakers who have a large bet on Beijing’s success in its economic development.

As former vice president Mohammad Hatta once said, Indonesia will have to carefully row between two reefs.