Rebalancing and Indonesia

US Pacific Presence Will Force Jakarta To Choose

The Straits of Malacca

As announced by then-US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last year, the military dimension of the US rebalancing, or pivot, to Asia will likely influence the region’s geostrategic landscape.

More US forces, including 60 percent of naval assets, will be transferred into the Pacific theater with rotational deployments in Australia, Singapore, Guam and Hawaii. This is in conjunction with China’s expanding military power as a potential US adversary.

As the military focus of US rebalancing is going to be on the maritime domain, Indonesia’s strategic calculus could become more complicated. Three of the world’s critical maritime choke points — the straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok — are in the archipelago. While the Strait of Malacca is partially administered by Singapore and Malaysia, the Sunda and Lombok straits lie entirely within Indonesian waters and sea lanes.

Soon, these waterways will be transited more frequently by US forces rotating between the Indian and Pacific oceans, now called the “Indo-Pacific,” particularly to Australia. More pressure will be felt as the Indian and Chinese navies increase their presence in the Indo-Pacific through these choke points to protect their commercial interests and energy security.

India’s trade with East Asia amounts to more than 30 percent of its total. Meanwhile, apart from being Africa’s largest trading partner, China also imports about 80 percent of its oil from the Middle East and Africa. Combined with Southeast Asia’s own maritime force modernization, this could lead to a saturation of regional waters.

A higher concentration of foreign maritime forces along the choke points could increase the risk of incidents at sea. Either by purpose or chance, foreign maritime forces could exploit the situation to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) activities against opposing forces. During wartime, these choke points could become more contested.

As an alternative to the Air-Sea Battle concept, the US strategic discourse has mooted the possibility of “offshore control” to interdict an adversary’s shipping. Interdicting such shipping would be more feasible along these narrow choke points than on the open ocean.

These rather daunting scenarios would not bode well for Indonesia as a coastal state. Refusing to draw a wedge between Washington and Beijing, the last thing Jakarta wants is a Sino-US conflict being waged on its turf. At the moment, Jakarta seems to enjoy playing with both sides and exploiting the situation to its own advantage.

The US has helped Indonesia build surveillance systems along the straits of Malacca and Makassar, while China has proposed similar systems along the straits of Karimata, Sunda and Lombok. Washington also has agreed to resume full military cooperation with Jakarta, including selling lethal arms, once considered taboo by the US Congress.

With Beijing, Jakarta has started unprecedented maritime cooperation in naval armaments, shipbuilding and oceanography, in addition to economic assistance.

But this situation cannot last indefinitely. Being at the crossroads of the Indo-Pacific, the archipelago could be caught in the crossfire should the Sino-American relationship deteriorate into armed confrontation. Jakarta then could face three difficult choices.

■Jakarta could tacitly align with the US. This would entail military support for Indonesia in return for increased US military access to Indonesian waters. Indonesia’s role, if any, would be limited to ISR activities in coalition with US forces.

However, increased US military access and presence in Indonesian waters could prod China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to expand operations into the archipelago, especially submarine operations. But mounting effective anti-submarine warfare against the PLAN would be challenging, as the archipelago hosts many deep straits and channels for submarines to slip through.

■Jakarta could enter Beijing’s maritime orbit. Apart from being its largest trading partner, Beijing has become an alternative as Jakarta’s “all-weather” defense partner. Returning the favor would mean acquiescence to Beijing’s demands, including keeping relations with Washington and its allies at arm’s length.

This could prompt the US and allied forces to conduct intrusive maritime operations within Indonesian waters, but an Indonesian response to this breach of sovereignty could trigger inadvertent confrontation.

■Jakarta is neutral. But Indonesia’s limited military capacity could be thinly stretched to strictly implement the 1994 San Remo Manual on Armed Conflicts at Sea, which forbids hostile actions between belligerent forces in neutral waters. Failure to implement these provisions could cost Jakarta its neutralist credibility. But remaining idle would put Indonesian assets and property at risk of collateral damage.

Jakarta is not alone in this predicament, but it is in the nation’s interest to ponder these choices sooner rather than later. Choosing “the least bad” option would at least keep it strategically engaged in the big power game. And most important, this could help Jakarta adjust its geostrategic planning early on.

Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto is a research analyst with the Maritime Security Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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