Indonesia leans more towards the United States amid growing maritime dispute with China
Indonesia, like other major Southeast Asian nations, is steering its military relationship toward the United States as China increases pressure in disputed waters, analysts say.
Late last year, Beijing demanded in December that Indonesia stop drilling for oil and natural gas north of the Southeast Asian country’s Natuna Islands, which lie in the deepest part South China Sea – an area Jakarta calls the North Natuna Sea.
In July and August, Chinese law enforcement vessels patrolled a new Indonesian drilling site near the islands, and a Chinese survey vessel conducted seabed surveys in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, according to the US-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
China claims around 90% of the 3.5 million square kilometer sea, citing records of historical use as cause for its claims. Four other Southeast Asian countries and Taiwan dispute all or part of China’s claims. They all value the sea for oil, natural gas, shipping lanes and fishing.
The Indonesian military announced this week that its forces and the US military are expanding their annual Garuda Shield bilateral exercises to 14 participating nations this year, including Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom. .
This year’s exercises, which will take place from August 1 to 14, will be the largest ever in Indonesia, reports the GBP Aerospace & Defense news site.
Due to perceived threats from China in the disputed sea, Indonesia increasingly sees the United States and other Western allies as military backers, analysts say.
“It caused Indonesia to look to the United States and other countries, but the United States in particular, as a kind of counterbalance,” said Carl Thayer, professor emeritus of politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in 2014 that his country would become a “global maritime pivot” – a force between the Indian and Pacific oceans – through domestic and foreign policy changes that included strengthening its maritime security and protecting its maritime borders.
Since then, the coastguard of the 17,500-island archipelago has expelled and confiscated fishing boats from other countries, including China. At the end of 2018, the country opened a base, with more than 1,000 personnel, in the Natuna Islands.
“I think Indonesia and China are getting more serious about resolving their overlapping exclusive economic zones, and as a result, you’ll see these kinds of confrontations more often these days,” said researcher Oh Ei Sun. principal at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
China has been an “irritant” to Indonesia since the 1990s, Thayer said, and President Widodo has mobilized “tens of thousands” of air and naval assets in the North Natuna Sea.
So far, Indonesian forces have been “unable to curb Chinese intrusions” into their exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, writes Felix Chang, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in a September 2021 analysis.
Wider trend in Asia
From March 28 to April 8, the United States and the Philippines held one of their largest annual joint military exercises. Taiwan, China’s rival for eight decades, is set to join the US military’s Rim of the Pacific exercise as an observer this year, Taiwanese media said earlier this year.
Experts told VOA that Southeast Asian claimants on the disputed sea privately approved of the US Navy sending warships to the waterway as a warning to China.
The Philippines and Vietnam have tried over the past decade to balance their foreign policies between Washington and Beijing, the nongovernmental organization International Crisis Group said in separate reports. Washington represents security, while Beijing is a neighbor and a source of trade and investment.
China and the United States were Cold War enemies and are now rival superpowers.
China probably cares little about Indonesia’s views of the United States, Oh said. The Southeast Asian state “didn’t quite align itself with the United States” and condemn Russia for its war in Ukraine as many countries have done, a- he declared.
Officials in Beijing have not commented on this year’s expanded Garuda Shield drills.
Indonesia sees China as its top export destination, worth $16.8 billion annually, and largest source of foreign investment, with $1.4 billion in the past three months of 2019.
Indonesia’s Muslim population may oppose a greater US role in the country, said Paramitangrum, a senior lecturer in international relations at Bina Nusantara University in Jakarta. Washington has tried to dismantle cells of radical Muslims in the country, the US Department of Justice has said. The efforts began after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, although they receive less attention now.
It is the United States that is approaching Indonesia to strengthen its military ties rather than the other way around, she said.
“As long as China doesn’t do anything or issue statements that reveal it is powerful or would like to show its power, it will be good for Indonesia and Indonesians,” Paramitangrum said.