Indonesia needs to upgrade US alliance to fend off Chinese aggression

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and analyst with several media outlets, covering foreign affairs and defense issues.

The Natuna Sea, which surrounds a chain of Indonesian islands off the northwest coast of Borneo, has become the latest point of dispute in the fight between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors over the South China Sea.

Indonesia, which claims the Natuna Sea as part of its exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, has formally joined the fray against China, which says it has rights over it and nearby waters encompassed by its “nine-dash line” map-marking. On June 18, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said there was no reason to negotiate with China on fishing activities around the Natuna archipelago.

But what if China were to ignore the Jakarta government’s diplomatic muscle-flexing and continue to send warships, coastguard vessels and maritime militia boats to assert its “historical” fishing rights in the area?

Indonesia has no way to prevent Chinese incursions in the Natuna Sea, which borders the southwestern edge of the South China Sea, at least on its own. Given that Southeast Asian solidarity against Beijing is not in sight, Indonesia is left with only one viable option — upgrading its military relationship with the U.S.

Indonesian naval forces have often had to push back against Chinese fishing trawlers escorted by military or armed Coast Guard ships. The latest incident occurred in December, when Chinese vessels entered the Natuna Sea, prompting Indonesia to deploy fighter jets and warships in the area.

Indonesian F-16 fighter jet flies above the nation’s naval ship in the Natuna Sea on January 10: Indonesia has no way to prevent Chinese incursions at least on its own.

  © Antara Foto/Reuters

Indonesia has now grounded its protest in law. In two notes lodged to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on May 26 and June 12, the Indonesian government said China’s nine-dash line had no legal basis and ran against the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.

Furthermore, the Indonesians voiced support for the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague which dismissed Chinese territorial claims to the region. The case before the international tribunal was filed by the Philippines which, along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, opposes China’s occupation and militarization of islets, coral reefs and shoals in the South China Sea.

But as retired Indonesian Admiral Eden Gunawan has said, the UNCLOS legal framework is not strong enough to stop Chinese and other foreign fishing boats from encroaching on his country’s EEZ.

With more than 17,500 islands and numerous chokepoints, Indonesia is vulnerable to external attacks. The Indonesian Navy has adopted a defense-in-depth strategy to counter foreign intrusions in its EEZ and protect its maritime borders. In essence, the Indonesians send their coastguard ships and warships to face foreign vessels of the same type, in accordance with UNCLOS rules.

At the moment, Indonesia has deployed some naval units in the Natuna waters. It is also committed to building up an air and naval base at Besar, the main island in the Natuna Regency, or sub-province, and increasing the presence of local fishing boats to exercise sovereignty over the area.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has hit the country’s economy hard, pushing the Jakarta government to trim military spending by $588 million this year — the initial military budget for 2020 stood at $9.3 billion.

Like other Southeast Asian nations, Indonesia would prefer not to pick a side in the U.S.-China rivalry. The status quo has always been the first option for Jakarta and its neighbors, with the U.S. balancing China.

Unity and coordination among the 10 members of ASEAN on the South China Sea issue would certainly help deter China’s assertiveness, but it is a long shot at the moment. This is the same for signing a binding code of conduct for activities in the strategic waterway between the Southeast Asian bloc and Beijing.

Against this backdrop, with the tit-for-tat competition between the two powers escalating, neutrality risks becoming unsustainable for regional actors at odds with the Chinese.

The Indonesian government should recognize the harsh reality and act accordingly. The idea of expanding military ties with the U.S. finds support from some in the Indonesian military’s senior ranks. They say their country has been cooperating militarily with Washington for more than 40 years, focusing on joint exercises and drills, but believe such a cooperation needs to be taken to a higher level, similar to an alliance, to make sure China will not dictate its policy in the region.

The upgraded relationship could be modeled after the U.S.-Singapore military pact, which grants U.S. forces access to the Singapore’s naval and air bases, including the deployment on a rotational basis of spy planes and littoral combat ships.

The Indonesian Navy could coordinate its defense-in-depth approach with U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, and the U.S. Navy could contribute to patrolling the sprawling Indonesian archipelago.

In this way, Indonesia would flesh out its defenses against the Chinese, while the U.S. would gain an active partner in its efforts to contain China within the China seas and the Strait of Taiwan — an American version of Beijing’s anti-access, area denial strategy.

Falling short of a full alliance with Washington, Singapore has kept enough elasticity to maintain close links with China. Indonesia’s enhanced defense relationship with the U.S. should be established on the same assumption.

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