Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 154

The Russian military aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi found itself the unlikely potential beneficiary last week of a diplomatic tug-of-war that has developed between the governments of Indonesia and the United States over the past several months. The issue involves arms sales, and in particular an arms embargo imposed by the Clinton administration (and the European Union) on Indonesia following the Indonesian military’s bloody 1999 suppression of an independence movement in East Timor. The embargo reversed a policy in place over several decades during which Jakarta had relied on Western nations–and especially on the United States–for its military hardware needs. Indonesia’s armed forces currently field U.S.-made A-4 Skyhawks, F-5 Tiger II and F-16 Fighting Falcon jets.

Indonesian Air Force chief Marshal Hanafie Asnan was quoted on July 30, however, as saying that his government was now considering the purchase of an undisclosed number of Russian Su-30 long-range fighter-bombers. A Russian source put the number at several dozen. The Su-30, said to be priced at about US$35 million per plane, is among the world’s most advanced aircraft and is one which, to date, is operated in Asia only by China, India and Vietnam. With a range of over 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) the aircraft would allow Indonesia’s armed forces to patrol the nation’s sprawling archipelago, and also parts of neighboring Southeast Asia, without refueling. The aircraft’s range and impressive bomb-carrying capacities could reportedly cause some tensions in the region, particularly between Indonesia and Australia. According to Indonesia’s Antara news agency, a committee within Indonesia’s parliament discussed the possible purchase of the Su-30s several months ago. Indonesian authorities have announced in recent months that they intend to purchase thousands of Russian Kalashnikov assault rifles and also ten troop-transport helicopters (AP, July 31; International Herald Tribune, August 2; Izvestia, July 31).

There is some precedent for a possible Indonesian-Russian aircraft deal. Russian sources report that in 1997 the two countries signed an agreement under which Russia would deliver to Jakarta not only the twelve Su-30s, but also eight military-transport helicopters and up to fifty armored personnel carriers. The contract, these same sources say, was worth between US$650 million and US$1 billion. It fell through with the onset of the Asian financial crisis in 1998 (Vremya MN, September 19, 2000; Vestnik Aviatsii I Kosmonavtiki, No. 3, 2000). The sale would have marked a major breakthrough for Russian military aircraft in the Southeast Asian market, which Moscow first cracked in 1995 with the delivery of eighteen MiG-29s to Malaysia. Russian arms dealers have had little success subsequently peddling fighter jets in the region, but Moscow has moved under Putin to bolster its arms sale activities and has undoubtedly targeted the region.

But analysts last week were suggesting that the reports out of Jakarta were likely intended more to pressure the United States into easing its restrictions on arms sales to Indonesia–and its restrictions on military-to-military contacts as well–than to signal any real interest in buying the Russian aircraft. That conclusion is based in part on the fact that the Indonesian government is currently believed to be in no position financially to consider major new weapons purchases. The soundings out of Jakarta also come, moreover, as the Bush administration is reported to be considering just the sort of changes that Indonesian authorities–and its military leadership–are hoping for. Capital Hill officials were quoted last week as saying that the measures under consideration include the sale to Indonesia of nonlethal military equipment, port calls by U.S. warships and a visit to Jakarta by the commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Dennis Blair. However, the measures, which were described as a reward for the Indonesian military’s noninterference in last month’s change of presidential leadership in Jakarta, could trigger some opposition from congressional Democrats and human rights groups (International Herald Tribune, August 2; Los Angeles Times, August 1).

Should the Russian-Indonesian aircraft deal come to naught, and particularly if that should happen against a background of improved Indonesian-U.S. defense ties, arms authorities in Moscow will undoubtedly attribute the defeat to yet another Washington move aimed at shutting Russia out of international arms markets. That has been a familiar complaint in Moscow over the latter part of the past decade, and it is one of many that Russian authorities have used to fuel domestic anti-Americanism, and to justify Moscow’s parallel willingness to sell weaponry to countries labeled as “rogue” states by Washington.