Achmad Ibrahim/AP
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, poses with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for photographers prior to their meeting at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, Aug. 26, 2013.

Asia pivot: US to sell attack helicopters to Indonesia in $500 million deal

Analysts say the deal would tighten military ties between Washington and Jakarta. But human rights activists are concerned about what the helicopters could be used for.

The United States announced on Monday that it will sell eight Apache attack helicopters to ally Indonesia for $500 million plus maintenance, radar, and training as part of its “pivot” toward Asia, a move many analysts see as an attempt to counter an increasingly assertive China. 

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the deal during a meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta, saying the helicopters were an example of the US’s commitment to helping Indonesia build its military capability. 

Though human rights groups criticize the sale for ignoring allegations of abuse by military forces against separatists in Papua and East Timor, analysts say they have little to worry about. 

Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer at the Indonesian National Defense University says the Apache deal, which had been under discussion for some time, was “part of a confidence building strategy” for US-Indonesian ties.

“They look at Malaysia and Singapore, and Indonesia’s military is like 20 years behind,” Mr. Sulaiman says, noting that Indonesia has been particularly wary about the US’s expanded military presence in the Asia-Pacific.

The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network issued a statement following the announcement that called the helicopters “offensive weapons often used in counter-insurgency campaigns.” 

Imperfect track record

The US slapped restrictions on military aid and training to Indonesia in 1999 in response to allegations that the military was committing gross human rights abuses in East Timor, which was fighting to secede from Indonesia.

Indonesia’s long-running dictator Suharto had been forced to step down amid mass civil unrest just two years earlier, and for years military ties between Washington and Jakarta were strained. 

In the early 2000s Washington stepped up assistance for counterterrorism training after several terrorist attacks against Western targets took place in the country. Then, in November 2005 the US lifted restrictions on military hardware sales.

Despite major reforms to the Indonesian military (known as TNI) in recent years, the Army has continued crackdowns on civilians in Papua, where a small-scale separatist insurgency simmers. And Human rights groups say forces have never been held to account for past abuses committed in East Timor. 

In addition, 12 members of the Army’s Special Forces are currently on trial in a military court for raiding a civilian prison in Yogyakarta and killing four detainees.

Highlighting progress 

Still, on Monday, Hagel highlighted Indonesia’s progress on protecting human rights, saying that improvements on that front “will lead to even more momentum in our defense relationship.”

The Defense secretary added that Washington was committed to “deepening and strengthening” ties between the two countries amid concerns about China’s growing assertiveness in the region, where it is currently locked in territorial disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam.

The Apache sale is part of Indonesia’s efforts to modernize its military and aging weaponry, which have suffered under spending cuts since long before Yudhoyono took office in 2004. In November 2011 the US agreed to provide Indonesia with 24 refurbished F-16 fighter jets and in May Germany agreed to the sale of 164 used tanks. Indonesia’s 2014 defense budget allocates $7.65 billion toward building up defense capabilities.

Sulaiman of the Indonesian National Defense University, says the Apache deal, which had been under discussion for some time, was “mostly about egos.”

He also dismisses concerns that the Apaches would pose a threat to separatists or political dissidents in Papua. 

“The military has been very careful these days, especially on human rights abuses,” he says. “They don’t want to jeopardize these new purchases because they know they need this new equipment.”

Then he adds, “You can’t oppress people with Apaches. It’s overkill.”

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