New US military base in Indonesia’s backyard

Indonesia has questioned the motive behind the United States’ move to turn Darwin, the Australian city closest to Indonesia, into a de facto US military base, warning that it could create mistrust among countries in the region.

“What I would hate to see is for the agreement to provoke a reaction and counter-reaction that would create a vicious cycle of tensions and mistrust,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told a press briefing here on Wednesday.

US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Wednesday unveiled plans to deepen the US military’s presence in Asia-Pacific, by establishing a US base equipped with 2,500 US marines in Australia’s Northern Territory.

“With my visit to the region, I am making it clear that the United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region,” Obama said in a joint conference with Gillard in Canberra, Reuters reported.

From next year, US troops and aircraft will operate out of Darwin, which is only 820 kilometers from Indonesia, from where they will be able to respond quickly to any humanitarian and security issues in Southeast Asia, where disputes over sovereignty of islands in the South China Sea are causing rising tensions.

“We have been informed by Australia on the matter. We’re not unaware. But it’s very important when a decision of this type is taken that there is transparency for the scenarios being envisaged, and that there is no misunderstanding and tension as a result,” Marty said.

Observers said the US was making a statement aimed at China — that it had a strong military presence in the area.

Hariyadi Wirawan of the University of Indonesia said that the US’ move was untimely and counterproductive when ASEAN, including Indonesia, had been working hard for years to create a more peaceful region.

“We will expect a reaction from China, while ASEAN countries that have problems with China, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, will welcome the move, possibly tearing ASEAN apart,” he said.

Lawmaker T.B. Hasanuddin said the US base in Darwin would create new tensions, and called on Obama to explain his motive to ASEAN.

Four ASEAN countries — Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam — have territorial disputes in some areas in the South China Sea.

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