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Tsunami moves geopolitical ground too

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Rob Goodfellow, New South Wales.

An unexpected consequence of the Aceh Tsunami Disaster has been a movement in the geopolitical ground.

Behind the scenes the “tectonic plates” of regional power are shifting.

The first movement is from the north. It is based on the fact that control of the Indian Ocean has hitherto been integral to India’s interests.

The Indian Navy is the world’s seventh largest. It consists of two fleets, the Western Fleet, homeported in Bombay on the Arabian Sea, and the Eastern Fleet, homeported in Visakhapatnam, on the Bay of Bengal.

The Americans, who are primarily a Pacific Ocean naval power, have suddenly and unexpectedly established an Indian Ocean presence, through their military-led tsunami relief efforts.

The complicating factor is that the Chinese Navy, which comprises the Northern Fleet (based in Qingdao), the Eastern Fleet (Shanghai), the Southern Fleet (Zhanjiang) and a roving fourth force, is also projecting naval power into the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

In a game of tactics and position, the Americans have ensured that their presence in Aceh isolates the Indian Navy and strategically neutralizes the potential influence of the Chinese.

American interest in the region has a long history dating back to the 1950s. At this time the North Sumatra-based, CIA-backed, Pemerintah Revolusionir Republik Indonesia — Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia, or PRRI-Rebellion, directly challenged Indonesia’s foreign policy drift towards the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

In particular, the U.S was preoccupied with the rise of the Partai Komunis Indonesia — the PKI, then the third largest Communist Party in the world.

During the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Indonesia was known as the U.S foreign policy’s “southern anchor”. When President Sukarno told the U.S “to go to hell with your aid” in March 1964, the Americans believed the Indonesian “ship had run aground”.

The pro-U.S, Soeharto-led military countercoup of the early morning of Oct. 1, 1965, re-set the “anchor”.

Today things are much more complicated than during the Cold War. The ability to positively influence, rather than merely control Indonesia, numerically the world’s largest Muslim nation (230 million), remains paramount to the U.S “War on Terror”.

The Americans are clearly concerned that the new “fault line” in Asia is the threat of a pan-Islamist movement, one that potentially unites the mass-base of Indonesian Islam, the rallying-cry of resentment over the mistreatment of southern Thai Muslims, Malaysian organizational capability and Mindanao-based Moro Islamic Liberation Front experience in guerrilla-warfare.

The second “tectonic” movement is from the south. Australia’s diplomatically sophisticated response to the tsunami disaster has surprised everyone. The Australian Government is the largest single government-to-government donor to disaster relief efforts in Indonesia, contributing a staggering A$1 billion in addition to the proceeds of the largest public fundraising effort in Australian history.

All of Prime Minister John Howard’s previous diplomatic shortcomings have been temporarily set aside.

Unlike the U.S, Australia’s interests in the region are more about trade and security than ideology and global power. Australia is a highly successful trading nation with an economy valued at some US$800 billion — which dwarfs Indonesia’s $180 billion economy and eclipses the combined economies of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

With a population of only 20 million, Australia’s continued prosperity relies on security, stability, innovation, trade and growth.

Australia’s tsunami response has redefined Australia’s role in Asia practically overnight. The established momentum for change, from a proto-European, Western-oriented, resources-based economy, to a fully integrated, knowledge-based, regional partner has accelerated. Australians are beginning to genuinely understand that Indonesia really is their gateway to the markets of Asia. Indeed, Australia’s trade security relies on the free movement of shipping along lines that extend from West Timor to the Straits of Malacca.

Indonesia, on the other hand, is beginning to recognize that Australia is an asset and not a threat.

This new found goodwill has reinforced the idea that Indonesia and Australia have at least two things in common. Both have strategic interests that lay to the north. Indonesia and Australia are in fact natural strategic allies. Both are cultural bridges between East and West. Indonesia has the capacity to explain Australia to Asia. Australia is able to explain Indonesia to the U.S. and Europe.

However, despite diverse North/South motives, the extraordinary global response to the tsunami disaster is evidence that the world will not allow “the southern anchor” to drift into un-chartered waters; Indonesia is too important. All of the key players, the U.S., China, India, Japan and Australia, while advancing their own interests, at least appreciate that a prosperous, democratic, secular, and unitary Indonesian State will guard against a different sort of upheaval to the one experienced on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004.