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Indonesia's stature rises

Anticipated security pact with Australia underscores how much ties have warmed.

By Tom McCawleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 17, 2006


A security pact expected to be signed this year between Indonesia and Australia will mark a formal end to a six-year rift over violence in East Timor and signals just how far the world's most populous Muslim nation has come in relations with its southern neighbor as well as the United States.

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The pact formalizes greater cooperation between Australia and Indonesia since the 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202 people, the majority of them Australians. Parallel to that process, a chain of events prompted in part by the December 2004 tsunami has resulted in closer links with the US, including the resumption of military ties.

The measures underscore Indonesia's growing stature as an ally in the US battle against Islamist violence and have drawn comparisons with the world's second-largest Muslim nation: Pakistan.

"After 9/11, security cooperation with Australia became essential - it's part of the grand defense strategy of the US," said Kusnanto Anggoro, a military analyst with Jakarta's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In both Indonesia and Pakistan, the US now enjoys friendly ties to presidents seen as sympathetic to US interests. Both Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan support a moderate Islam and are seen as bulwarks against violent fringe groups. Together, they preside over about 356 million Muslims, about a quarter of the Islamic world.

Critics such as Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, argue that Indonesia has made progress in stemming the human rights violations that first chilled ties with the West. But, they say, it has not done enough to bring the military to account for alleged abuses in East Timor.

Others, however, point to Indonesia's political reforms. Unlike President Musharraf, President Yudhoyono can boast a strong popular mandate and vibrant democracy. And in November, for example, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla took the bold step of showing a video of suicide bombers to powerful Islamic scholars, triggering a sea change in public opinion.

Mr. Anggoro says the Australia pact would "revive the old security agreement [of 1995]" between the two countries. Australia has recently resumed military exercises with Indonesia's Special Forces Kopassus unit, and Australian police have shared intelligence and resources to help Indonesia's police track down suspected terrorists.

In the case of the US, the tsunami spurred unprecedented cooperation with Indonesia's military, says analyst Greg Fealy, a lecturer at the Australian National University.

US aid to Muslims affected by the tsunami and by Pakistan's October 2005 earthquake also dramatically improved attitudes toward the US, according to polls sponsored by the Washington-based bipartisan nonprofit group Terror-Free-Tomorrow.

The Indonesia poll, conducted by the Indonesian Survey Institute in February last year, concluded that 65 percent of Indonesians had a more favorable view of the US. A November 2005 poll in Pakistan found similar results, noting that 79 percent of those with confidence in Osama bin Laden had a more favorable view of the US after the earthquake.