Indonesia's geopolitical balancing act

Indonesia's geopolitical balancing act
Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (R) and US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel (L).

INDONESIA - Shortly before US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Jakarta last week to announce the sale of eight AH-64 Apache helicopters to Indonesia, Indonesian defence officials went to Beijing for talks on jointly developing C-705 missiles for Indonesia's navy.

The officials lament that, while the US$500 million (S$640 million) deal outlined by Mr Hagel may seem significant, the Chinese and Koreans are more willing to share their know-how. And they say it would be foolish to not seize these prospects at a time when Indonesia is actively seeking to upgrade its own hardware after over a decade of belt-tightening.

Indonesia's defence procurement, in the spotlight with these high-profile buys, is a reflection of its diplomacy. As the largest ASEAN nation and its biggest economy, the world's largest Muslim- majority country and a democracy sitting astride key sea lanes, Indonesia and its military have become more significant geopolitically of late.

The new Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) chief General Moeldoko said after his swearing-in last Friday: "The TNI is a beautiful girl. Everyone wants to get close to it." Yet they have to be ready for contingencies, he added, citing the South China Sea.

Unlike some of its neighbours, Indonesia has made no claims in territorial disputes involving China, and has been pushing for a code of conduct in these waters. Its diplomats cite its longstanding policy of "rowing between two reefs" - not being passive or reactive to disputes involving others but actively trying to settle them.

But the country's embrace of a rising China to boost its arsenal even as it steps up ties with a United States pivoting to the region - amid the occasional flare-ups in the South China Sea and a resolve not to take sides - belies the ongoing balancing act it has had to play between those courting it.

When the US first announced its plan to base Marines in Darwin in late 2011, the notice was criticised by Indonesians as an attempt to heighten big-power rivalry in the neighbourhood.

And when a Chinese marine vessel three years ago threatened an Indonesian Navy patrol boat that detained Chinese trawlers fishing illegally in waters off Natuna, Indonesia also registered its protests with the United Nations.

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