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.

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies analyst Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto noted in a recent commentary that, for now, Jakarta "seems to enjoy playing with both sides and exploiting the situation to its own advantage".

Indonesia is not the only country facing such pressures. But as Indonesian Defence University academic Kusnanto Anggoro points out, Indonesia's political and military elite are much more oriented towards the US.

Longstanding military ties with the US, strained in the 1990s over human rights abuses in East Timor, are now back on track, and TNI leaders seek more exchanges with the US. Defence cooperation notwithstanding, the navy appears wary of China's intentions.

Several observers note that the borders of China's "nine-dotted line" extent of its claims in these waters overlap with Indonesia's exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Islands between the Malay Peninsula and Borneo.

In March, navy chief Marsetio called for naval drills to rein in tensions. And last month, the navy announced Indonesia would host a naval exercise around the Natuna Islands by April next year with all 18 ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus countries, including the US and China.

Admiral Amarullah Oktavian of the Western Fleet told reporters the exercise will focus on naval capabilities in disaster relief, but also have a political agenda - make clear that Natuna and its waters are part of Indonesia, including through maps for the exercise.

Even as Indonesia keeps rowing between two reefs in the South China Sea, its boat may find it harder to keep the barnacles off its bow.

zakirh@sph.com.sg

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