Former Indonesian ambassador John McCarthy has warned Australia must resolve the rift quickly with Indonesia given the instability in the region. Sasha Woolley
Politically ambitious Indonesian general behind military rift with Australia
By Anne Hyland, Australia
AFR-The suspension of military co-operation between Australia and Indonesia by General Gatot Nurmantyo may be being used by the Indonesian hardline military chief as part of a bigger strategic push to build a political career, experts said.
"Gatot has his own political ambitions. He would like to be a vice-presidential or presidential candidate," said Greg Fealy, an associate professor of Indonesian politics at the Australian National University. "He's a man with a very high opinion of his own capabilities and a lot of people in the political elite see him as a player. When he makes statements like this he's not just making them as head of armed forces but he may also be positioning for some future political run."
Military co-operation between the two countries was suspended without the involvement or knowledge of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, also referred to as Jokowi, or his Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu.
The Indonesian defence minister will be flying to Australia to help resolve the incident, reported The Jakarta Post. "It is important to maintain good ties between countries," he said.
The suspension of military ties followed an incident in November where an Indonesian officer was said to have been offended by "culturally insensitive" training material at a Perth defence base.
The Australian government has declined to state what the material was but it's understood to include references to West Papua and confusing the Indonesia word Pancasila – which refers to Indonesia's five guiding principals – with the word Pancagila, which means crazy.
West Papua is part of Indonesia and any suggestion of independence is a controversial and sensitive topic.
In a speech, reported by the ABC, General Gatot said officers attending Australia were taught that Papua was going to get independence.
He then suggested Australia was trying to recruit those officers.
Greg Fealy, an associate professor of Indonesian politics at the Australian National University, says General Gatot has "a very high opinion of his own capabilities". Fairfax Media
Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne has said the government "regrets" the incident occurred and that offence was taken.
Bob Lowry, author of The Armed Forces of Indonesia, said Australia's defence forces would probably review the education and training of its officials following the incident. The government has confirmed an inquiry into the incident was almost complete.
Mr Lowry said the reaction by General Gatot to the incident suggested there was more at stake. "It's feeding into a bigger political picture in Jakarta," he said.
He questioned if Gatot would survive in his current role given the suspension of military co-operation was done without the approval of the Indonesian president.
"He's been given enough rope to hang himself and he's done that. It's whether Jokowi wants to spend the political capital doing it and how long it will take him."
If the Indonesian president did remove General Gatot Mr Lowry said it would not be immediately but rather in the next few months.
On Thursday, Joko Widodo told Indonesian reporters: "I think our relations with Australia remain in a good condition. The problem has to be clarified first at the operational level so the situation will not heat up."
Mr Fealy said if the Indonesian president, defence minister and foreign minister, were not informed it "tells us something about how civilian military relations are currently being handled within the Jokowi government".
Australia is not the only country that has been on the receiving end of General Gatot's ire. He has been a critic of China, one of the biggest foreign investors in Indonesia. Last year, the Indonesian navy fired on a Chinese fishing boat in disputed waters and on this matter, Gatot also was outspoken urging the president to take a stronger stand.
At rallies General Gatot has talked of how foreign powers are seeking to undermine Indonesia from within through ideological and cultural infiltration and economic sabotage. He has pointed the finger at the increase in hard drugs available in Indonesia and sexual promiscuity as examples of this and made allegations of proxy wars.
"His views have had wide distribution," said Mr Fealy. "He likes the public spotlight. He thinks he has answers to the country's problems."
The dispute between Australia and Indonesia, however, must be resolved quickly said John McCarthy, a former Indonesian ambassador, noting the many issues confronting the region.
These include the rise of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, a hardline politician who's ordered the killings of thousands of suspected drug dealers in the country while boasting of killing some himself. He's also referred to US President Barack Obama as a "son of a whore". Elsewhere in the region, Thailand's military has shown no sign of returning the country to democratic rule while tensions continue to escalate between China and a raft of countries over the former's claim to the South China Sea.
"This is just the sort of thing we need to prevent happening between Australia and Indonesia," said Mr McCarthy. "It clouds and generally obfuscates the important dealings each country has to have with the other right now with everything that is changing in the region. You need to have a relationship with Indonesia which is not messed around by these sorts of incidents."
He described General Gatot as a "nationalist" and doubted if other Indonesian generals would have had the same reaction to this incident.
In a separate incident, Indonesia's finance ministry informed J.P. Morgan Chase & Co it would no longer receive government work after a report from the investment bank downgraded its rating on Indonesian equities to underweight from overweight. Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati is a former managing director of the World Bank.
Mr Richard Martin, founder of IMA Asia, an Asia-based consultancy to businesses across the region, said the Indonesian president was "always manoeuvring between powerful factions in Indonesia and if one of them seizes on this incident as a method to attack Jokowi then we have a problem".
ANU's Mr Fealy said it would be worrying for Australia if the Indonesia president and defence minister were "unable or reluctant" to resolve the dispute promptly.