Relations with Indonesia during the confrontation
The Indonesians were able to draw on significant regional and international opposition to the creation of a greater Malaysia that would include northern Borneo. The Philippines, for example, advanced claims to the area of Sabah in North-East Borneo, while China objected to the formation of a new pro-Western nation in South-East Asia. Indonesian President Sukarno's argument that the new Federation of Malaysia would be a means of perpetuating British colonial rule in the area was also rhetorically very powerful, coming as it did towards the end of a period of decolonisation.
Sukarno became Indonesia's first president in 1945, and he entrenched himself in office during the crisis of 1957. He held power by maintaining a balance between opposing forces that included the military and the communists. Although it seems to have been deeply felt, Sukarno's personal sense of Indonesian nationalism was politically advantageous because it enabled him to control and channel these opposing forces. It also led to expansion and even aggression.
The dynamics of expansion were set in place after the Second World War when Indonesia itself was created out of the former Dutch colonies known as the Netherlands East Indies. By the late 1950s, however, it was clear that further expansion would begin to cross acknowledged ethnic and political boundaries. This occurred in 1961 with the annexation of western New Guinea, the last Dutch colonial possession in the region. When the Dutch were about to hand control to an indigenous government Indonesia mobilised its army and threatened to invade. The Dutch were prepared to fight, but the United States organised talks that resulted in a Dutch withdrawal leaving the territory technically under the control of the United Nations. An Indonesian takeover soon followed.
The Indonesian success in western New Guinea underpinned the position taken by President Sukarno and Foreign Minister Dr Subandrio on the question of North Borneo. Sukarno and Subandrio also understood that some form of force – rather than the 'coercive diplomacy' that had worked against the Dutch – would be necessary in Borneo. And while they were willing to use violence, they did not want a full-scale war with the Commonwealth forces stationed in mainland Malaya. The policy of Confrontation, which Dr Subandrio announced in January 1963, was the result of this thinking.
The resistance by Commonwealth soldiers, especially the Ghurkhas, to Indonesian-backed incursions into North Borneo during 1963 should have indicated that this policy was failing. Yet the momentum of nationalistic expansion led to an escalation in the conflict, culminating in the flagrantly aggressive Indonesian attacks on mainland Malaya in late 1964. Rather than forcing the British and Malaysians onto the defensive as intended, these attacks provoked the build-up of Commonwealth forces in North Borneo that ended the conflict. Neither Sukarno nor Subandrio survived in power after the Confrontation with Malaysia.