Australia, Indonesia Play Balancing Act with China over Arm Sales

Australia, Indonesia Play Balancing Act with China over Arm Sales
MaoNo / Pixabay

the exception of countries having maritime territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea, most Southeast Asian countries would prefer neutrality. This could change if China continues its recent confrontational posture.

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Having said this, it’s important to note that Indonesia is a bit different than smaller ASEAN states. Due to its population and size, Indonesia has always tended to see itself as the grouping’s natural leader. As such, Indonesia cannot easily adopt a position of neutrality on the South China Sea issue, particularly when its fellow ASEAN members are perceived to be exercising their rightful claims. While Indonesia is not a claimant to the disputed islands, China’s claims, if successful, would give it territory right next to Indonesia’s maritime boundaries. In other words, Indonesia and China would border each other at sea. This is why, despite not having any claims, Jakarta looks at Beijing’s territorial ambitions and its naval expansion with some concern.

Indonesia is well aware that if China continues on its current economic trajectory, the military balance in the region will steadily move in Beijing’s favor, and there

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is very little that smaller Southeast Asian countries can do about the fact. There would be two options available in such a situation: accommodation with Chinese interests in ways that may not be favorable to small states, or engage in balancing. Any serious attempt to balance China has to involve the United States. America’s military power in the region is without rival and will remain so for the near future. While Jakarta publicly expressed some concern about the American deployment of Marines to Darwin in Northern Australia, it is well aware that it is not aimed at Indonesia. Jakarta worries more about possible friction between the US and China, which would have the potential to destabilize the region. While Indonesia certainly does not oppose an American presence in Southeast Asia, it is trying to determine what nature and level it would be comfortable with.

Indonesia and the US have enjoyed close relations since the 1960s, and the country was a vital American partner during the Cold War. Relations were strained in the 1990s and early 2000s due to human rights abuses, in particular Indonesia’s actions in the former East Timor. However, in recent years military ties have been re-established, and defense and security cooperation have increased significantly. Decades of interaction created much deeper ties between the US and Indonesia than decades of no diplomatic relations did for Sino-Indonesian ties. A look at the backgrounds of Indonesian government ministers shows a large number of them were educated in the US, Britain or Australia. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono studied at both civilian and military colleges in America, as have numerous other Indonesian military officers and diplomats.

The United States enjoys the advantage of being geographically separated from the Asia-Pacific, it has no territorial disputes with any country in the region and

its military presence in Southeast Asia, such as basing ships in Singapore, was encouraged by the host countries. While a lot has been said about American military power in the region, there is a dimension to it that is often overlooked. America has an extensive network of defense alliances and close arrangements with several regional countries. Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and New Zealand have formal alliances with the United States, while countries such as Singapore have close ties that amount to a de facto alliance.

China, on the other hand, does not have comparable military alliances. While Myanmar and Cambodia have close ties to China, in particular economic relations, this is more a result of geography. In the case of Myanmar, until recently it was due to Western sanctions. This has clearly been demonstrated by Myanmar’s recent efforts to attract investment from Western nations and other powers such as India. It’s very unlikely that the growing defense and security ties between the United States and Indonesia will evolve into a formal alliance similar to US agreements with Australia or Japan, or even a de facto one such as with Singapore.

One thing seems likely, however: Indonesia’s future relations with the United States are likely to be stronger than its ties with China, particularly in defense and security. This is not to suggest that Indonesia-US relations are free of tensions, but the world’s second and third-largest democracies have much more in common today than they once did. Washington needs to be aware that a democratic Indonesia with a rapidly expanding economy wants a greater role in international affairs and to be taken seriously in the Asia-Pacific region. China realizes this and has gone out of its way to improve relations with Indonesia. The Americans’ neglect of Asia, in particular Southeast Asia, in the years following 9/11 created some resentment toward the United States and came at the time when China’s “smile diplomacy” was at full speed.

Certainly the US enjoys some advantages over China in the region, but it should not take anything for granted. As argued above, in the aftermath of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, US prestige reached a low point while China’s aid and investment dollars were being praised in most Southeast Asian capitals. The US is disengaging from its adventures in the Middle East and South Asia, and refocusing on the Asia-Pacific at a time when China’s assertive posture on the South China Sea and elsewhere is seriously undermining the effectiveness of its soft power. It seems that American and Chinese popularity has reversed, but that could flip again if Beijing is able to deal with its territorial disputes in a more acceptable manner.

Australia, due to its proximity to Southeast Asia and close alliance with the US, will form an important element of the growing strategic dynamic involving Indonesia, China and the US. These relationships are vital for the stability of the region. Australia is arguably the closest American ally there, sharing a common language, culture and political system. Australia, the US, Canada, Britain and New Zealand also control the most sophisticated global signals collection and analysis network, known as Five Eyes. Australia will host thousands of US Marines in Darwin, while American unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may operate from the Cocos Islands, one of the closest Australian territories to Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

Australian and US officials claim the UAV deployment is to fight terrorism and other nontraditional threats including piracy and people smuggling. However, several observers have pointed out that the craft are likely to be used to monitor the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea. Indonesia has expressed concern about the UAV deployment, fearing that its air space maybe be violated as the Americans monitor China. Regardless of these concerns, military cooperation between Australia and Indonesia has recovered to levels attained prior to the 1999 East Timor crisis. Indonesia’s concerns about the UAVs can be mitigated by intelligence sharing and keeping Jakarta informed on the aerial operations.

Canberra has always given top priority to its relations with Indonesia and for decades they were cordial, until Australia’s 1999 military intervention in what is now Timor-Leste. The intervention was the biggest challenge to Indonesian-Australian diplomatic and security relations, and some resentment and suspicion remains among Indonesian officials, particularly within the Armed Forces. However, stable and cordial relations between Indonesia and Timor-Leste since the territory’s independence in May 2002 have facilitated the normalization of relations between Jakarta and Canberra. Issues such as Indonesia’s restive Papua region and traffickers using Indonesian territory to smuggle boatloads of illegal asylum seekers to Australia occasionally cause ripples in bilateral relations, but they can be managed. Australia’s relations with Indonesia and the US are likely to continue to grow, with special emphasis on defense and security, and Australian policy towards China will be very similar to that of Indonesia. China has been Australia’s largest trading partner for the past few years and exports of raw materials to China have been vital for Australia’s economy given crises in the West and Japan.

As such, Australia will be extremely careful not to offend China and jeopardize its economic relationship. On the other hand, Canberra will want to strengthen defense and security cooperation with the US and encourage a greater role for America in the Asia-Pacific. The Australian-American alliance is one of the oldest in the region, and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. This strategy of close and lucrative economic ties with China and close defense and security ties

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