Indonesia Struggles to Build Military That Can Stave Off China

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(Bloomberg) — Indonesia is confronting challenges overhauling its aging military despite a spending splurge to face down threats that include a long-running territorial dispute with its biggest trading partner, China.

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Incursions by Chinese vessels into waters around the Natuna Islands, between Malaysia and Indonesia, have put Jakarta on alert. The government recently relocated a major naval fleet command to Riau, near the islands, after starting construction on a submarine base last year. It also announced plans to spend $125 billion on new weapons, despite a shrinking defense budget.

But expensive weapons can’t solve all of Indonesia’s defense challenges. Its reliance on several foreign suppliers — including Russia — over the years means its existing hardware is burdened by interoperability problems, said Evan Laksmana, senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

Military efficiency is also hampered by a glut of new recruits and a rapid system of rotation that can see troops change roles after a matter of months, he said.

“You can get all the new hardware you want, but if you don’t improve the quality of the man behind the gun then it doesn’t really matter,” Laksmana said.

Tensions between China and coastal nations along the South China Sea have been rising for years as Beijing asserts its claim to a vast swath of the resource-rich waters. While open conflict is unlikely, nations across Asia and Southeast Asia are rushing to improve their defenses for a range of scenarios, and the US and its allies are eager to help.

Last month, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto said a $14 billion deal to purchase 36 new F-15 jets from Boeing Co. is in the “advanced stages” after praising cooperation with the US during a visit by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Days later, he met French counterpart Sebastien Lecornu in Jakarta amid reports Indonesia is in talks to buy two Scorpene-class attack submarines.

Indonesia had already placed an order for 42 Rafale fighter jets in a $8.1 billion deal earlier this year. Indonesia has also expressed interest in buying Turkish-made armed drones, Reuters reported in September, adding to the list of countries interested in unmanned weapons that have proved devastating in conflicts like Russia’s war in Ukraine.

General Andika Perkasa, until this week the nation’s top military commander, said last month that he’d also like to expand ties with the Quad — the security partnership between India, Australia, Japan and the US — as well as increase participation in the “Garuda Shield” military exercises led by the US.

“Indonesia’s security sector, if not all of its political leadership, has woken up to the threat of China’s gray-zone coercion,” said Greg Poling, head of the Southeast Asia program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Its planned naval and air procurements seem pointed at enhancing domain awareness, patrol and deterrence capabilities with regard to China.”

The pressures on Indonesia come with the historically non-aligned nation trying to navigate a middle path between its economic reliance on China — its biggest trading partner — and the US and its allies, who Jakarta is turning to for a stronger security partnership.

Beyond any risk to the Natuna Islands, Indonesia also finds itself in the middle of an increasingly armed and tense neighborhood: US-China strains over Taiwan have spiked this year, Japan wants to sharply increase military spending and Australia is still planning to buy nuclear submarine technology from the US and UK — a move that officials in Jakarta remain sharply critical of.

In a clear sign of how Indonesia doesn’t want to play favorites, the country has continued to do military exercises with both the US and China.

But there’s little doubt China is a key part of the equation when it comes to Indonesia’s security posture, with retired General Perkasa citing the Natuna Islands when talking about the military’s shortcomings.

“I’m not gonna be embarrassed to say this, but our ability to operate patrolling in our EEZ around Natuna” can only last days, he told Nikkei Asia last month, referring to his country’s exclusive economic zone.

“Without an effective modernization of the armed forces, with credible platforms and a real increase in capacity and capabilities,” dealing with threats from China and other nations “will be complicated,” said Anastasia Febiola S., head of defense at Semar Sentinel Indonesia, which provides political risk and security advice to companies.

Indonesia has to tread carefully given its economy depends on China: total trade between the two nations neared $114 billion last year, according to IMF import data. The US was a distant second at $37 billion.

President Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, hasn’t let the economic relationship stop him from acting. He deployed warships to the area around the Natuna Islands on multiple occasions following the sighting of Chinese vessels. He has also declared the right to exploit natural resources in the EEZ around the islands, even with China demanding it stop, according to Reuters.

But in a sign of the balancing act Jakarta continues to maintain between Beijing and Washington, the new top military officer — Admiral Yudo Margono — recently lamented “the potential for instability” due to “the presence of foreign powers in the South China Sea region.” That was seen by some regional experts as a slight against America’s defense posture in the region.

“I don’t think there’s a consensus that China is the adversary,” said Laksmana of the National University of Singapore. “Some would see China as a nuisance. You will find still those who would argue that China remains the most important economic partner.”

–With assistance from Faris Mokhtar and Emily Cadman.

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