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Transnational machines of Konfrontasi

Indonesia’s Konfrontasi [confrontation] with Malaysia (1963–6) has long been an important fixture in Southeast Asian history. Longstanding tropes of the ‘secret war’ live on in popular culture.[1] A rich literature exists detailing the subversive operations of Indonesian-funded soldiers, as well as Britain’s counter-insurgency strategies. Transnational comparisons have been drawn between British military activities in Borneo and America’s war in Vietnam. This echoes similar pedagogical comparisons between the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War, which continue to be used as classic examples in security studies and political science.

But in dwelling on the minutiae of jungle warfare, one risks losing sight of the broader picture, in which confrontation laid bare the limits of tenuous internationalism and the weaknesses of ongoing commitments for regional cordiality. Just as Indonesia was ramping-up its policy of confrontation and support for the anti-Malaysia Kalimantan Utara [Northern Borneo] movement in the summer of 1963, so too was it also heralding regional cooperation, association and cordiality amongst the nations of the Malay world through the Philippine-led Maphilindo proposal.

Excerpt from the Madera Tribune, 30 January 1963

Indeed, Indonesia seemed to be simultaneously promoting mushawarah [consultation] and mufukat [consensus of opinion] with the new Federation of Malaysia, whilst also openly pushing for its very destruction.

The crisis-ridden Indonesian government leveraged its longstanding international reputation as a bastion for anti-colonial independence to assert that Malaysia was neo-colonial, and thus illegitimate. In so doing, it sought to impose influence over the new Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak—via local proxies—in a decidedly colonial manner.

Such paradoxes characterised regional diplomacy and government policies in Southeast Asia during this period. In his recent article, Mattias Fibiger describes how in the early 1970s the Indonesian government utilised powerful diplomatic networks to gets its way and eventually annex East Timor. ‘They pursued diplomacy with Portugal… They courted a wider array of Asian, African, and Latin American governments to promote Indonesia’s image as an anticolonial state. They manoeuvred in the United Nations… And, finally, they extracted the imprimatur of Indonesia’s most important international aid donors: the United States of America and Australia.’[2] Fibiger’s cutting-edge research draws upon not only the inner-workings of Indonesia’s New Order, but also the far-reaching ‘diplomatic offensive’ that it conducted across the globe. These transnational and transregional links, writes Fibiger, are revealing of not only the ‘architecture of globalisation’ in a post-colonial world, but also the fact that they could be utilised for ‘counter-revolutionary purposes’—in this case, the colonisation of East Timor.

Similar forces were at play in earlier years during the Konfrontasi, where the United States, too, was caught up in such awkward paradoxes. In the early 1960s, financial aid granted to Indonesia was considered essential in ‘help[ing] block the Communist’s bid for their greatest prize since China,’ even if it caused ‘disenchantment on Capitol Hill.’[3] The US granted immense financial aid, sold aircraft—including ten C-130 Hercules transport aeroplanes—and committed to the sale of vast amounts of agricultural produce at levels far below market value. During the Konfrontasi, the US committed to continuing its bilateral aid programme ‘despite concern over … [Indonesia’s] relations with the new state of Malaysia.’ Simultaneously, however, it sought to suspend its participation in multilateral aid and stabilisation programmes spearheaded by the IMF.[4]

In a peculiar twist, so too were Western colonies briefly caught up in such awkward diplomatic contradictions. Indonesian orders for 100 landing craft from shipbuilders in Macau in 1964 were to be built using steel components manufactured in Hong Kong.[5] This was a much sought-after contract. Using American diesel engines, these transnational machines would’ve represented an amalgamation of American, Hong Kong and Macanese manufacturing, to be utilised by Indonesia in its operations against British and Malaysian troops in Sabah and Sarawak.

But records show that upon learning of these manufacturing contracts, the British colonial government in Hong Kong prevented the components from being exported to Macau.[6] Instead of using materials from Hong Kong, Indonesia’s landing craft were built using steel sheets from China. By December 1964, Indonesia had received 50/100 of its landing craft from Macau. Perhaps Indonesia’s landing craft, ultimately an amalgamation of American diesel engines, Chinese steel components and Macanese construction, were representative of the strange twists and turns of transnational manufacturing amidst the global Cold War and Konfrontasi periods. If anything, it shows how the ‘architecture of globalisation’ and transnational aid and military contracts spanned even fraught wars and conflicts.

[1] See also: Will Fowler, Britain’s Secret War: The Indonesian Confrontation, 1962–66 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006). [2] Mattias Fibiger, ‘A Diplomatic Counter-revolution: Indonesian diplomacy and the invasion of East Timor,’ Modern Asian Studies (2020), pp. 1-41. [3] ‘Current Status of US Aid Program in Indonesia,’ AID – Indonesia, in Box 1, RG Records Relating to Malaysia and Singapore, 1963–1969 No. 631409, pp. 1-3. [4] Ibid. [5] David C. Cuthell to Green, ‘Landing craft being built for Indonesia in Macao,’ 22 December 1964, in AID – Indonesia – Grants, Technical Assistance, in Box 1, RG Records Relating to Malaysia and Singapore, 1963–1969 No. 631409. [6] Ibid.


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