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In a bind

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezApril 21, 2015

As China becomes increasingly assertive in the South China Sea, Indonesia's top general has called for a new military balance in Asia. But what should that new balance look like? DW speaks to analyst Zachary Abuza.

Indonesien Generalstabschef General Moeldoko
Image: Getty Images/O. Siagian

"There are significant changes in the stable and calm conditions that existed in the region a decade ago. So everyone has an opinion that China is a threat to the neighborhood." These are the words of Indonesian military commander Moeldoko (main picture) speaking to news agency Reuters on April 19 about why he believes Asia needs a new military balance.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims from neighboring countries and triggering territorial disputes. As a result of heightening tensions in the region, Indonesia plans to upgrade its military forces in Natuna and Tanjung Datu, areas of the South China Sea near China's claims.

In a DW interview, Zachary Abuza, an independent researcher on Southeast Asian security, talks about Indonesia's concern over Chinese regional expansion, its vision of a new balance and the role it would like to play as an "honest broker."

DW: Indonesia's top general Moeldoko has called for a new military balance in the region. What is Jakarta concerned about?

Zachary Abuza: The Indonesians are in a bind. General Moeldoko referred to the regional peace ten years ago, when China was less assertive in the South China Sea. Since then, China has rapidly built up its naval capabilities and developed a white hulled coast guard that is larger than the combined coast guards of Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Indonesien Militärübung
Indonesia has increased its military expenditure since 2004Image: Getty Images/R. Pudyanto

Indonesia is concerned about Chinese intentions in the South China Sea. In 2010, Indonesia sent a diplomatic letter to the United Nations' Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf expressing concern about China's 9-dashed line, which appears to go through the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off of Natuna Island, Indonesia's most lucrative natural gas field.

China never responded to that letter or clarified its territorial claim over the Natuna gas fields. But the Indonesian foreign ministry has downplayed the issue, frequently denying that there is any territorial dispute whatsoever. The reality is that Jakarta just cannot afford to be openly confrontational with Beijing, because China drives the Indonesian economy. Bilateral trade with China is 28.37 percent of its total trade, and China is its second-largest export market.

A cornerstone of President Joko Widodo's economic policy has been to develop maritime resources, which entails protection of the country's sovereignty. Indonesian law enforcement have been sinking the ships of Thai and Vietnamese poachers, but they have refused to do that with Chinese ships, for fear of incurring Beijing's wrath.

I think that's true for most of ASEAN. China is the largest trading partner for every ASEAN state and increasingly a key investor. At next week's ASEAN meeting, the "China threat" that will be most on people's minds is its economic slowdown to seven percent, not the South China Sea.

What kind of military balance is Jakarta calling for?

Indonesia sees China's assertive policies and rapid land reclamation efforts as a result of a power vacuum. It wants an effective balance. On the one hand, it wants a more visible US presence.

Last week, they were engaged in maritime surveillance exercises with the US Navy out of Natuna and called for more regular military exchanges and exercises with the US.
Indonesia has also made the first steps in enhancing maritime cooperation with Japan. It would like a more robust and unified ASEAN response, but China has ensured that that will not happen.

USS Kidd und USS Pinckney im Pazifik
"Indonesia wants a more visible US presence in the area," says AbuzaImage: Reuters

In this context, General Moeldoko also said Indonesia wants to bring together the United States, Japan, China and Southeast Asian nations at a regional defense summit next year in the hopes of easing tensions. What is the likelihood this happening?

Since the 2012 Cambodian summit, China has effectively neutralized ASEAN forums as a venue to discuss the South China Sea. So Indonesia is looking to establish a new multilateral forum that China will not be able to sabotage through diplomatic pressure on client states.

It is possible that this happens as Indonesia, Japan, the United States, and several ASEAN members, Vietnam and the Philippines, would like a multilateral solution. But as China sees no role for the US or Japan in the South China Sea, I am not confident that it would participate.

Moreover, I am not confident that it would achieve much: China is not going to stop its rapid reclamation projects that have already increased their land mass from five to 900 acres, or their military buildup on those islands.

The general also said Indonesia plans to upgrade its military forces in the remote Natuna Islands and Tanjung Datu, areas near China's claims. Is this a reflection for a potential escalation of tensions between Beijing and Jakarta?

Indonesia has increased its military expenditure since 2004 when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected president. In 2004 the military budget was $2.4 billion, by 2015 it was $8.1 billion, a 238 percent increase.

Much of that increased spending has gone to the navy and air force, as the insurgency in Aceh was resolved. Nonetheless, that expenditure comes after decades of non-investment and neglect.

On a per capita basis Indonesia spends less on its military than Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. And according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in 2013, its military expenditure as a percent of GDP, was the lowest in ASEAN. In 2015, it is only 0.8 percent of GDP.

So even though Indonesia is placing more military assets in Natuna, both maritime and aviation, there are real limits to how much it can deploy. For that reason, it really is not that threatening to China.

How can Jakarta play the role of "honest broker" In the South China Sea?

Indonesia really would like to be the "honest broker" in the South China Sea, citing the fact that they do not have a territorial claim in the Spratly or Paracel islands. But the reality is, they do have a conflict with China over Natuna's EEZ.

China Expansionspolitik in Südchinesischem Meer
China has been expanding its land reclamation activities in disputed waters of the South China SeaImage: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe

They think that they are the only country to be able to forge a multilateral consensus, but China ignores them and it's certainly not going to stop its reclamation or buildup in the Spratlys or Paracels.

Indonesia is primus inter pares within ASEAN and they do seek a larger diplomatic role in the world. SBY tried this beyond Southeast Asia, President Widodo is focused closer to home. Indonesia knows what they want but they don't have the capabilities or resources to get there. It's a problem of an aspirant state.

Zachary Abuza is an independent researcher on Southeast Asian security and the author of "The Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand," published by the United States Institute of Peace.