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Trashing the Treaty of Lombok

By Duncan Graham - posted Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Perception depends on position. Living a few hundred kilometres northwest of Darwin I have a different view of the planned deployment of US Marines in the Northern Territory than when I lived in Perth.

If I was still in my home state (and earlier state of ignorance about Southeast Asia) I might have thought the idea of 2,500 American soldiers between me, and the envious, land-hungry masses of Asia, to be a good idea.

Like all Australians I knew about our empty north and over-populated neighbours. I grew up with the menacing arrows of communism jabbing southward, knowing only the gallant forces of the Free World could stop the evil Red Tide, just as they halted the Japanese in the 1940s.


But then we all matured and it seemed that the gravitation theory driving Australian foreign policy had been buried. Wrong. It's been exhumed and revitalised.

It's been embarrassing trying to explain to Indonesians why a sovereign nation would allow foreign troops to be based on its soil, unless, of course, that country is weak, insecure and the slave of a colonial master.

That's the obvious reason, and no end of rabbiting on about alliances and historical ties will shake our neighbour's opinion. They're just a mite confused – why the US military and not the UK when Australia has the Union Jack on its flag and the Queen's head on its currency?

It would be easier trying to explain cricket.

The Indonesian media response has been robust, with commentators – particularly on TV – wondering how the base sits alongside the regular pleas for Australians to develop friendly grassroots relationships with the people next door.

The Jakarta Post reported the 'bombshell' announcement, commenting that 'the move is not exactly the kind of signal (the US) is looking for in terms of greater US engagement with Asia.' There's been much talk of a new Pearl Harbour.


Foreign minister Marty Natalegawa had been alerted to the decision, probably to comply with the 2006 Lombok Treaty clause on 'consultation', a word that in newspeak has become synonymous with 'informing'. The Treaty also includes a section about not doing anything that threatens the other country's stability.

Australia's interpretation of allowing another country's forces on the border doesn't fall into this category. Indonesia appears to differ. Dr Natalegawa said it could create "a vicious circle of tension and mistrust" which in plainspeak is instability. The Treaty was supposed to do the opposite.

Ms Gillard has reportedly said that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono "certainly understands that this is a step forward in our defence cooperation with the United States."

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

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