Indonesia Responds Warily to Obama Sending U.S. Troops to Australia

By Patrick Goodenough | November 16, 2011 | 7:06 PM EST

U.S. President Obama returns a salute before he lays a wreath at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Australia, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

( – The first regional response to President Obama’s announcement of a long-term deployment of U.S. troops in Asia has not been positive.

China’s reaction to the news about U.S. Marines being stationed in northern Australia on a sustained basis was unsurprisingly cool, given the unstated but widely recognized fact that the move is aimed at counterbalancing a rising China.

But Wednesday’s announcement in Canberra also prompted wariness in Indonesia, a leading Southeast Asian country whose size and location makes it an important player in the U.S.-China regional rivalry.

“What I would hate to see is if such developments were to provoke a reaction and counter-reaction precisely to create that vicious circle of tensions and mistrust or distrust,” the Australian Broadcasting Corporation quoted Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa as saying in reaction to the news.

“That’s why it’s very important when a decision of this type is taken there is transparency of what the scenario being envisaged is and there is no misunderstanding as a result,” he said.

Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that starting next year, 250 U.S. Marines would be stationed near Darwin, capital of Australia’s Northern Territory, for six-month periods, and that the number would expand to 2,500 by 2016.

U.S. military aircraft including bombers and fighter planes would also visit Darwin more frequently under the agreement, which marks the 60th anniversary of the Australia-New Zealand-United States (ANZUS) military alliance.

Darwin is directly across the Timor Sea from Indonesia (about 1,600 miles from Jakarta), and the planned deployment will be the closest U.S. forces have been to the world’s most populous Islamic country on an ongoing basis since strategic U.S. bases in the Philippines were shut down in the early 1990s after lawmakers there voted not to renew the leases.

Natalegawa’s cautious remarks reflects the balancing act Indonesia has been trying to play in recent years. As an influential member of the Association of South-East Asian (ASEAN) bloc the emerging democracy has welcomed Washington’s role in managing territorial disputes between China and ASEAN members in the resource-rich South China Sea. Indonesia and the U.S. have also expanded economic and military-to-military cooperation in recent years.

At the same time, Indonesia has a growing economic relationship with China, and has improved political ties with the Asian giant following suspicions in past decades marked by allegations that Beijing was supported communist movements in Indonesia.

From Australia, Obama heads to Indonesia, where he will become the first U.S. president to participate in the East Asia Summit, a six year-old annual gathering of 18 countries, including China.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow