US foreign military base: a necessity?

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Fuad Bawazier Economist

IO – The media has been abuzz with the implications of the visit made by the United States’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Jakarta. Mr. Pompeo met with President Joko Widodo not even a month after Indonesia’s own Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto met him. This series of mutual visits of the two countries’ Defense officials is extremely important for international media, especially in terms of the US-China tension – or even more specifically, tensions in the South China Sea area. 

The South China Sea, hitherto a relatively peaceful area with well-regulated maritime traffic of Indonesian fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zone and international trade sailing according to the 1982 UNCLOS convention, has recently become a hotbed of international tension. This is because China has issued unilateral claims and started to breach UNCLOS as an international agreement. ASEAN countries, including Indonesia, are all troubled by China’s ambitions. The United States, which used to maintain stability in the South China Sea with minimal military force, must now exert more force to balance China’s own. The tension mounts by the day. 

The United States and ASEAN countries seem to agree that the current rules for South China Sea should not be changed, and that China should not control the area unilaterally. Any change will be to the detriment not only of ASEAN countries but also international trade, as ASEAN countries lose their rights there, and the damage may be permanent. Therefore, Indonesia and other ASEAN countries strongly reject China’s claim of 90% of the South China Sea. 

As I recall, China’s threat has been felt even since the days of President Soeharto’s rule. At least he was aware of the potential threat China poses over the Natuna area, even though China was nowhere near as strong as it is now. The New Order Government brilliantly invited United States corporations to explore Natuna waters, which are located in Indonesia’s outermost maritime border, for natural gas just as China started to lay claims on it. 

Even though Natuna has an amazingly huge natural gas reserve, initially no petroleum and natural gas company dared to explore and exploit it because of potential harassments from China, especially if they have to follow the profit-sharing pattern of 65%:35% or 85%:15% that used to apply at the time. However, Indonesia quietly ensured that it is an American company that works on Natuna to point out how they can defend themselves from any threat, harassment, or claim China might make. 

However, there was another factor that proved to be an obstacle: the Government’s speed in making the decision to let an American company enter the country. Indonesia really want a major American company to agree to a gas exploration and exploitation agreement for Natuna area with it – an area that really had nothing in it unlike now. What matters is if an American company invests in the area, Indonesia’s sovereignty over Natuna will be internationally acknowledged. For this purpose, the State was even willing to forgo a majority share of the yield. 

If I’m not mistaken, ExxonMobil was approved for the purpose in 1980. Naturally, the “special” contract has a time limit. Despite everything, our State gets its taxes and other benefits, mostly the political and defense benefit of having the United States guard part of its territory without having the hassle of an American military base there. Only the American armada actively patrols the area in the interest of joint security with other ASEAN countries. 

The rising heat around South China Sea is likely to cause some changes in the region’s political map, especially since China seems to prefer to show military might instead of taking the dispute to international diplomacy or negotiation. United States, the only country strong enough to balance out the Chinese military force, is busy holding intensive communication with ASEAN countries, including Indonesia as an important member. This is why RI’s Minister of Defense visited Washington, D.C., followed with the United States’ State Secretary return visit to Jakarta. The meeting between these defense officials seem to be quite productive: Indonesia reiterates its rejection of China’s ambitious claims over the South China Sea; likewise, with other ASEAN countries. 

And here is where the issue of the “necessity” of having a United States military base in ASEAN, especially in Indonesia as its biggest country, and as the one with most to lose with China’s claims come in. “Foreign military base” has always been a sensitive is sue. Traditionally, ASEAN countries, especially Indonesia, do not want them because they are afraid that it will incite possible armed conflicts. However, tensions in South China Sea continue to build up despite the lack of any US foreign military bases. In fact, it is said that China has already started to build up its own military base in the area. 

Even without building a foreign military base, there are other means of defense cooperation. It is common for countries to cooperate on their defense by performing acts such as joint military exercises, exchanging military training, and arms production. Recent changes in the international political situation must be responded to properly, or in measure, like how Mr. Harto secured Natuna from China’s claim in the past. The difference is that now China’s military is extremely powerful, and the threat faced by ASEAN is all too real. 

To be honest, this is not something that ASEAN can face alone. We need to consider any policy we make on this issue based on national and ASEAN interests. If it is already at a level we cannot handle, having a foreign military base should not be a taboo. We can start with – it is possible that it is enough – that we provide an area for repair and maintenance of American warships. Or even if a military base is constructed, they must be there for only a limited amount of time. 

Either of these options are economically good for Indonesia. But most importantly, a foreign military base must only be constructed for the sake of Indonesia’s national security – because for one reason or another, global balance, whether in terms of politics, economics, or military, has changed. Politics are always dynamic and fast-moving. Therefore, decision-makers must also be fast-moving to respond to real, serious threats to Indonesia.