Sunday, March 27, 2016

Indonesian military (TNI) may up the ante on Batam to underscore abang-adik dynamic

With several years to go before Indonesia makes good its pledge to strengthen its air traffic control (ATC) assets ahead of a push to claim control of air lanes now under the Singapore Flight Information Region (FIR), Indonesian officials have already started cranking up the rhetoric.

A recent commentary by former chief of the Indonesian air force, Air Chief Marshal Chappy Hakim, points to the lines of argument that will assail us whenever the FIR issue comes into play. These stoke sentiments close to the hearts of many Indonesians by making a call not just for a nationalistic spirit but also by sowing the perception that foreign interference in Indonesian sovereign territory infringes on their beloved Tanah Airku (i.e. Homeland).

This confluence of factors - fanning nationalistic fervour and the need to stand united against foreign interference - is a surefire way for rousing the rakyat. So why let facts get in the way of a good story?

For an august personality who once commanded the TNI-AU to raise such points signals the thinking that prevails at the highest levels of the Indonesian elite.

Who pays the price for being portrayed as the money-faced and meddlesome neighbour? Singapore.

Alas, it is not the rhetoric or jingoistic statements that Singaporeans should watch out for.

Cleverly crafted essays pitched for a domestic audience may well go viral in ASEAN's largest and most populous country. But it is Indonesian attempts at flexing its military muscle to telegraph its hardline stance that are worth watching out for.

Their current weapon of choice appears to be occasional Indonesian air force deployments to Hang Nadim Airport (BTH) on Batam island, which lies within sight of Singapore.

Indonesian warplanes can fly anywhere they wish. But when Indonesian fighter pilots ignore, or seem blissfully ignorant of, flight procedures and protocols in some of Asia's most congested air lanes, we are waiting for an accident to happen.

To have fast jets flying among passenger jets with little or no regard for ATC instructions from Changi flirts with danger, imperils aviation safety and flies in the face of internationally agreed standards of behaviour mandated by ICAO.

You would have guessed by now that such aerial theatrics have taken place in Singapore's FIR.

As the TNI does not have a permanent fighter detachment on Batam, the TNI's flying circus performs only for a limited time - usually for a month or so once a year. A handful of warplanes operating from an open tarmac at BTH is all it takes to remind Singapore that the TNI is in business.

It is a safe bet that the TNI will up the ante in coming years. Such muscle-flexing performances may be intended as a political sideshow for domestic consumption. But Singapore should never desensitise itself to less-than-friendly military posturing on its doorstep.

In time to come, TNI fast jets may not be the only weapon of choice for such theatrics.

Knowing Singapore's propensity for planning ahead and preparing for worst-case scenarios, it is likely that our defence planners have proactively sketched out scenarios involving other war machines as well as drawer plans should the muscle-flexing cross the line.

Singapore will stand alone if it comes within the range rings of tactical weapons that exert a strategic effect. This is because the world's arms control regimes that guard against the proliferation of strategic weapons are worded for weapons with a powerful punch and a long reach that stretches for thousands of kilometres.

A tiny city-state like Singapore cannot expect international arms control watchdogs to view the movement of tactical war machines in our neighbourhood with the same level of importance or alarm as the way weapons like cruise missiles are moved across the European continent. Neither will the defence press see such movements as newsworthy or sinister.

So we'll have to count on ourselves.

You have to ask yourself how far these quasi bully boy tactics would go if Indonesia really wanted to exert its strong arm in its imagined abang-adik (big brother-little brother) dynamic.

Indonesians love to remind their countrymen and foreigners alike that the distance between the extreme ends of their archipelago will cover width of the continental United States. It's indeed true! This is a geographical reality that underscores the vastness of our southern neighbour.

We hear the message loud and clear.

At the same time, one hopes Indonesia realises that the prosper-thy-neighbour approach that Singapore fosters is a two-way street.

If the occasional (and predictable) posturing by the TNI on Singapore's doorstep is anything to go by, it will not be business-as-usual if and when Indonesia "takes back" control of the FIR allocated to Singapore by ICAO.

Check Six.

You may also like:
Indonesia-Singapore defence relations: A special friendship. Click here

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Bangkok visit

Am rounding up a week's stay in Bangkok, Thailand. 

It was good catching up with an old friend from the MINDEF network in the heart of Bangkok. Thank you for the guidance and patience.

Was glad to make the acquaintance of a French national, an old Indochina hand, to hear firsthand how Cambodia's population was systematically liquidated by the Khmer Rouge from Year Zero. Lessons from Cambodia's killing fields are especially relevant in today's security context as we face violent extremists who are set on reshaping society by killing all those who do not conform to their life's views. Thank you for sharing how a nation collapsed. Your war stories are valuable as you were there. And yes, will make that trip to Siem Reap some day. 

Events back home weighed heavily on our hearts this week. :-(