Indonesia's stature rises

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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

As a result, analysts say, the Bush administration was able to parlay the goodwill into lifting an embargo on military exports and foreign military financing ties with Indonesia on Nov. 22.

A modest $1 million in foreign military financing has been approved for the Indonesian navy in 2006, compared with $30 million in military grants for the Philippines. Indonesia's Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono said priority would be given to buying spare parts for C-130 transport planes.

Earlier in the year, Washington had been moving toward repairing military ties. In February, two months after the tsunami, the US resumed IMET, an education program for Indonesian soldiers, and the sale of nonlethal military equipment. Later, in May, "the resumption of normal military relations," said President Bush, "would be in the interest of both countries."

But a waiver in the State Department's authorization bill to override many of the restrictions on restoring military ties angered critics.

The State Department cited the "national security interests" as a reason for the waiver, noting Indonesia plays a strategic role as a "voice of moderation in the Islamic world." Indonesia also received critical support from then-Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a former ambassador to Indonesia.

Another factor holding back military ties, the fate of two American teachers murdered in Papua Province in 2002, also saw progress. On Jan. 11, police acted on leads from FBI investigators and arrested 12 suspects.

But much of the source of improvement lies in perceptions of Yudhoyono himself. A graduate of the IMET program, he has called the US his "second home." Yudhoyono has supported increased civilian control over the military, which has dominated Indonesian politics for 40 years. Perhaps most significant, some 88 percent of Indonesia's electorate voted for him in the nation's first-ever direct presidential election.

Washington's about face on military ties with Indonesia follows that of Pakistan in 2001. Soon after 9/11, Musharraf agreed to allow Pakistan to be used as a base in attacks against Afghanistan's Taliban regime. But where Yudhoyono has a direct popular mandate, Musharraf rose to power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

Some of Yudhoyono's domestic political allies warn that the US cannot take its political support - or popularity within Indonesia - for granted. Hilman Rasyad, a member of parliament's security and foreign affairs commission, said that an alliance with the US would be "difficult, even impossible."

Mr. Rasyad's conservative Islamist Justice and Prosperity (PKS) party controls only about 8 percent of the vote in the 550-seat parliament, but stepped in to bolster Yudhoyono. A critical ally, the PKS is one of several Islam-linked parties in parliament. But even it is ambivalent about US ties. "Anti-US feeling is spreading for us, even in this party," Rasyad says.

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