This news comes as a bit of a surprise: Indonesia's Defence Ministry has concluded a deal with the US for the purchase of eight AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships.

The Australian Government will probably look kindly on this*. For one thing, as the ABC points out, it suggests US-Indonesia military relations are warming up. And it's easier for our Defence Force to train with Indonesia when it is operating American equipment rather than Russian.

But what are the choppers actually for? According to US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the helicopters will deal with 'a range of contingencies, including counterpiracy operations and maritime awareness'.

A question for our knowledgeable readership: does that pass the smell test? Let me know on blogeditor@lowyinstitute.org or via our Facebook page.

Hagel's statement seems dubious to me. The AH-64 is a helicopter gunship designed to hit ground targets in wars and counter-insurgencies, not engage in maritime policing against pirates. And Indonesia has the world's second-longest coastline. What use are a handful of expensive, slow, short-range helicopters for 'maritime awareness' when Indonesia could buy cheap long-range patrol planes instead?

* But maybe it shouldn't be welcomed. Michael Wesley argued back in 2010 that closer US-Indonesia relations are not necessarily good news for Canberra:

China's rise has kicked off a regional dynamic in which countries are building up each other's power. That's why the Japanese are building the New Delhi subway and the Americans have agreed to help the Vietnamese with nuclear power. Wealthy countries that are threatened by China's rise are looking around for weighty and like-minded partners, and building them up to fighting weight – meaning, enough strategic significance to take part in the omni-balancing of China.

India's the first cab off the rank, followed by Vietnam. The next has to be...Indonesia. It's perfect – big, historically suspicious of China, strategically located. The Japanese and Koreans have their hands full helping India and Vietnam. This leaves the US as most likely to awake to the strategic sense of helping Indonesia emerge as a great power.

Think about it – as China builds naval muscle in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, wouldn't the Pentagon want to invest in building up Indonesia's air and naval forces?

Whether Indonesia is stable and benign or not, this would constitute the most profound shift in our strategic geography for 60 years. Are we sure our friends in Washington, entering a deepening spiral of strategic competition with Beijing, would take account of our strategic interests before investing in Indonesia's strength?

Photo by Flickr user The US Army.