02/19/2014, 00.00
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Jakarta and Singapore at loggerheads over the name of a new Indonesian naval ship

by Mathias Hariyadi
Jakarta's decision to name a Navy corvette KRI Usman Harun after two commandoes considered heroes in Indonesia but criminals in Singapore has increased tensions between the two countries. For experts, Indonesia's upcoming presidential elections and US-Sino relations in the Asia-Pacific region are behind the geopolitical tug of war.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) - This year's Indonesian presidential elections and power games in the Asia-Pacific region are behind the dispute between Singapore and Indonesia over the name given to an Indonesian warship under construction, this according to geopolitics expert Adhie Sachs. In his view, the confrontation between the two nations is a significant international issue.

In Indonesia, people are waiting to see who will replace President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who developed closer relations with the West and the United States. A friend in Jakarta would be good for the latter.

However, a statement by Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen that the Indonesian Navy corvette KRI Usman Harun would not be allowed in Singapore territorial waters is fuelling tensions.

Indonesian leaders have reacted angrily to the decision. Their national pride wounded, some Indonesian lawmakers slammed the Singaporean minister.

The ship is named after two Indonesian marine commandos - Harun Thorir and Usman Janatin Ali - whose act of sabotage in mid-March in 1965 caused major loss of life in Singapore.

The two planted a bomb at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building on Orchard Road in Singapore killing three people and injuring another 33.

Caught by Singapore forces as they tried to escape, they were tried and hanged in Changgi in 1968.

President Sukarno recognised their action as a "state mission" designed to prevent the creation of a new Federation of Malaysia with Singapore.

President Suharto declared them national heroes, and gave them a state funeral with full honours and burial in the cemetery of Kalibata, South Jakarta.

Eventually, political tensions between the two neighbours softened after Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew came to power in Singapore and was forced to lay a wreath of flowers on the grave of the two "heroes" in an official state visit in 1973.

After decades of neighbourly relations, things between two countries soured after Singapore leaders objected to Jakarta's decision to name a corvette after the two "criminals", and decided to ban the new ship from Singapore territorial waters. This in turn angered leaders in Jakarta.

Slated to join Indonesia's Easter Navy Fleet, the ship will become operational by the end of this year.

Therefore, diplomatic tensions caused by Indonesia's decision in 2012 to name the ship after the two marines (a decision it will not change) and the statement by Singapore's defence minister should not cause any further row or confrontation with Singapore.

Still, tensions between the two countries reflect a much broader geopolitical problem in the region that will inevitably involve Indonesia's new leaders.

For Adie Sachs, the timing of the dispute is no coincidence coming so soon before Indonesia's upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in April and October.

Whoever will be the next president, he will have a significant role to play in the South China Sea and in the Asia-Pacific region at a time of frosty relations between China and the United States.

Indeed, Beijing's decision to conduct its recent naval exercises in the Indian Ocean rather than in the troubled South China Sea is no accident, especially after Jakarta granted the Chinese ships the right to sail through the Straits of Malacca.

For the US government, this is a wake-up call. Yesterday, America's top diplomat, US Secretary of State John Kerry, flew to Jakarta on an official visit.

Although Kerry met with his Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa to discuss regional issues and climate change, there is much more at stake, namely the future balance of power in Asia and the world.

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