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Why Wibowo matters, and why he doesn't

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COMMENTS

14 July 2011 15:37

Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD at Griffith Asia Institute on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia's foreign policy.

I read with anticipation Natalie Sambhi's reply to my post about the promotion of Lieutenant General Pramono Edhie Wibowo to Indonesian Army Chief of Staff, expecting her to notice my error concerning the mandatory retirement age for TNI officers (it's 58, not 56), and looking for some pithy analysis on the implications of General Wibowo's promotion for Australia. I was left disappointed on both accounts.

Natalie is correct that I failed to mention the fact that Wibowo, like his father, commanded Indonesia's Army Special Forces unit. I also neglected to say that he was Commander of the important Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) and the West Java-based III-Siliwangi Military Area. My piece was focused on the ongoing political influence of former Indonesian military officers rather than the implications for Australia of Wibowo's promotion to Army Chief.

If I was to write about the implications of Wibowo's promotion to Army Chief of Staff for the bilateral defence relationship I would say it was a generally positive development, but nothing remarkable. The greater significance for Australia lies in his potential to become a future president of Indonesia.

Back to the defence relationship, though. Firstly, although the resumption of joint exercises between Kopassus and Australia's Special Air Service Regiment is a sign of a strong bilateral defence relationship, it is Australia's Defence Cooperation program, not special forces engagement, which has served Australia well during times of 'diplomatic strain'. Elements of the DC program, a suite of training and education opportunities Australia has conducted with Indonesia since the sixties, survived even the nadir of the East Timor crisis.

Second, there is little causal evidence to link Wibowo's promotion to enhanced Indonesian defence cooperation with the US and China, although for some time the US has targeted Wibowo for training and engagement opportunities based on his family ties and upward career trajectory. But US eagerness to 're-engage' with TNI, including Kopassus, is driven much more by counter-terrorism objectives and US 'grand strategy' (ie. containing China), not specific individuals within TNI command.

The conduct of joint special forces training between Indonesia and China is not a 'thawing' of military relations between the two countries, as Natalie has suggested, as there was previously no military relationship to freeze. There was no substantive defence relationship between Indonesia and China during the Soekarno years and certainly not following the ascendancy of Indonesia's military in 1965. What is significant about Exercise Sharp Knife between the PLA and Kopassus is not Wibowo's role, but the fact that it is unprecedented, and further evidence of a nascent but expanding defence relationship.

This is important for Australia, as it reflects the degree to which China-Indonesia relations have normalised since democratisation and improved perceptions of China within TNI. Strategic analysts might also note that it is a useful means by which China can test TNI capabilities.

Third, Natalie sees a challenge for Australia if Wibowo gains political office, arguing that 'reconciling democratic values with regional strategic imperatives is no cakewalk'. But I think she is overstating the issue. Wibowo has proven an intelligent, capable and professional officer who has held some of TNI's most strategic command positions. Rightly or wrongly, it would be very difficult to find a senior TNI Army officer who has not had combat experience in Aceh, Papua or East Timor.

Even President Yudhoyono himself is not completely clear of human rights concerns, having been deputy commander of the Greater Jakarta Military Area Command (Kasdam Jaya) during brutal violence against supporters of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle in 1996. Indeed, Wibowo represents a far more palatable presidential candidate than other former generals, such as Wiranto and Prabowo Subianto, who have previously run for political office in Indonesia.

Finally, regarding Natalie's advice that 'Australian leaders, both civil and military, should fully appraise the role that figures like Wibowo play and use the relationship we have built with them'. I am quietly confident that our Defence diplomats in Jakarta understand the importance of officer corps linkages.

Photo by Flickr user CARAT.

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