USMC rotation, C-130 donation on agenda at Australian-Indonesia talks

James Hardy JDW Asia-Pacific Editor

Neil Ashdown Country Risk Analyst

Key Points

  • The first 2+2 dialogue between Indonesia and Australia has seen broad agreement on the upcoming rotation of US marines to Darwin
  • Indonesian officials had criticised the arrival of US forces in Australia, saying it threatened to destabilise the regional balance of power

The first ‘2+2 dialogue’ between Australia and Indonesia’s ministers of defence and foreign affairs saw progress on the handover of four surplus Australian C-130 transport aircraft and agreement on the effect of US Marine Corps (USMC) training in Darwin on regional security.

Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marty Natalegawa had reacted cautiously to the planned rotation of USMC troops to northern Australia when it was announced in November 2011, saying it could lead to a “vicious circle of tension and mistrust” in the Asia-Pacific region.

After meeting with Australia’s foreign minister, Bob Carr, and defence minister, Stephen Smith, on 15 March in Canberra, Natalegawa and Indonesian Minister of Defence Purnomo Yusgiantoro were more positive on the potential outcomes of the USMC rotation, which is due to begin later this year.

Saying that “if there were some questions initially those questions have been provided [with] answers”, Natalegawa added that “one of the potential benefits of such a force would be to address challenges such as human, disaster response capacity”: a key issue for Indonesia given a recent series of major natural and humanitarian disasters.

Yusgiantoro added that “we don’t have a problem at all” with the USMC deployment.

This was reinforced by Carr, who said he had a “happier view” based on comments by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono “that he [Yudhoyono] was satisfied with the announcement about the US force posture review”.

The review, announced by US President Barack Obama in January 2012, is part of a general US shift back to the Pacific after a decade of involvement in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. In October 2011 US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told an audience in Japan: “We will continue to not only maintain but to strengthen our presence in this part of the world.”

While the USMC presence in Darwin will be small, Carr said that it is part of “initiatives designed to reinforce regional stability and offer … enhanced co-operation with regional partners, including on humanitarian and disaster relief”.

Smith referred to previous comments by Yudhoyono, who said that the USMC presence in Northern Australian could lead to trilateral training exercises, “to which both Australia and the United States responded positively”.

The first 2+2 dialogue since the format was established by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Yudhoyono in March 2010 also touched on the donation of four surplus Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) C-130H Hercules aircraft to the Indonesian Air Force – Tentara Nasional Indonesia- Angkatan Udara (TNI-AU): an offer made by Gillard to Yudhoyono at the East Asia Summit in Bali on 20 November 2011.

In November a spokesperson from Australia’s Department of Defence (DoD) told IHS Jane’s that the offer depended on Indonesia agreeing to fund refurbishment and maintenance costs. A contract to refurbish the aircraft is expected to be valued at around AUD40 million (USD40 million) and will be carried out by a contractor selected by the Indonesian Ministry of Defence.

The RAAF has owned 12 C-130H aircraft since the late 1970s. Only seven remain in service and these are scheduled to be retired in about 2015. The RAAF’s dependency on the aircraft has been reduced by the acquisition of four Boeing C-17A Globemaster III strategic lift aircraft in 2006.

The TNI-AU owns more than 20 C-130 platforms (a mixture of C-130Hs and C-130Bs), although less than half are thought to remain operational because of cannibalisation caused by a lack of funds to procure spares. The operational readiness of the inventory was severely impeded by the six-year military sanctions imposed by the US, which were lifted in 2005 in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

 

COMMENT

The establishment of a 2+2 dialogue with Indonesia underlines Australian intentions to improve what has at times been a tense relationship: apart from this forum, Canberra has only established such regular talks with the US, UK and Japan.

Relations between the neighbours have been complicated by Canberra’s support for East Timor, refugee and human rights issues and Jakarta’s perception of an Australian military build-up. In 2004 Indonesia criticised Australian plans to purchase follow-on stand-off weapons (FOSOW) for its F/A-18 Hornet and AP-3C Orion aircraft fleets: a capability that is supposed to be fulfilled by the much-delayed Lockheed Martin AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM).

In addition to the dialogue and C-130H donation, Smith said a defence co-operation agreement would be signed “in the course of the next couple of months” and that annual defence minister meetings would also start in the second half of 2012.

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