Indonesia’s Military Flexes Muscle as S. China Sea Dispute Looms

Jakarta. In a move that could have serious repercussions for the security situation in the South China Sea, Indonesian officials on Wednesday acknowledged that China was claiming part of Indonesia’s Riau Islands province as its own territory.

The Indonesian Military’s (TNI) Air Commodore Fahru Zaini, who is a member of the defense strategy unit at the office of the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said that China had included parts of the Natuna Islands within its so-called nine-dash line.

This line indicates the border of China’s maritime claims, comprising almost the entire South China Sea. An image depicting the nine-dash line was also included in newly issued Chinese passports.

“What China has done affects the Unitary State of Indonesia,” Fahru said in Natuna on Wednesday.

“As such, we have come to Natuna to see firsthand the strategic position of the TNI, especially in its ability, strength and its deployment of troops, just in case anything should happen in this region.”

Indonesia is not the only country whose territory China has laid claim to, with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan all experiencing similar problems in the South China Sea.

Fahru emphasized that in order to protect Indonesian territorial integrity, it was important to strengthen social cohesion in the country’s outlying areas, like the district of Natuna.

“[In] border areas such as Natuna, the unity of people across all ethnicities needs to be strengthened — unity needs to be prioritized so that it will not be easily influenced by other countries,” he said, adding that Indonesia was strategically located, with foreign boats and aircraft passing by on a daily basis.

“This strategic location can be an advantage, but there are some downsides. It all depends on how we implement it as a state,” Fahru said.

Gen. Moeldoko, the TNI chief, last week flew to China to attend a meeting with his Chinese counterpart to affirm Indonesia’s commitment to stabilizing the volatile South China Sea area.

Returning from his trip, Moeldoko said he had plans to further strengthen Indonesia’s presence in the Natuna Islands, because of their strategic location.

“We have to continue monitoring the developments in the South China Sea cautiously,” Moeldoko told reporters last week, as quoted by

He emphasized that any negative events taking place in the area could have a dangerous impact on Indonesia, saying that he had asked the heads of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force to put together a formula to strengthen the military force in Natuna.

He also added that the military would be adding at least one Army battalion in addition to strengthening its existing naval base in Natuna.

“We will also prepare fighter aircraft in the area,” he said.

Japan eyeing arms exports

Underlining the precariousness of the security situation in East and Southeast Asia, Japan’s government is planning to overhaul its self-imposed ban on arms exports, an official said on Thursday.

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has delivered the blueprint to lawmakers in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner New Komeito, according to an LDP official, with the premier looking for a green light from the cabinet by the end of the month.

The relaxed rules could allow Tokyo to supply weaponry to nations that sit along important sea lanes to help them fight piracy and also help resource-poor Japan, which depends on mineral imports.

Japanese arms could potentially be shipped to Indonesia as well as other nations around the South China Sea — through which fossil fuels pass — such as the Philippines, for example, which also disputes Beijing’s maritime claims expressed in the nine-dash line.

Japan already supplies equipment to the Philippines’ coast guard, an organization that is increasingly on the front line in the nation’s territorial rows with Beijing. Any move to bolster that support with more outright weapon supplies could irk China, which regularly accuses Abe of trying to re-militarize his country.

Under its 1967 ban, Japan does not sell arms to communist nations, countries where the United Nations bans weapons sales, and nations that might become involved in armed conflicts.

The rule has long enjoyed widespread public support as a symbol of Japan’s post-World War II pacifism.

But it has been widely seen as impractical among experts, because it stops Japan from joining international projects to jointly develop sophisticated military equipment, such as jets and missiles.

In 2011 Tokyo eased the ban on arms exports, paving the way for Japanese firms to take part in multinational weapons projects. Japan works with its only official ally the United States on weapon projects.

Evaluation of strength

The TNI has been training in Natuna to improve its position there. In October last year, 21 fighter airplanes took part in a training operation called Angkasa Yudha 2013, during which a number of bombs and rockets were dropped off the eastern part of Natuna Island.

The Air Force’s chief of staff, Air Chief Marshal Ida Bagus Putu Dunia, said the target of the training was to test the operating unit, including the aircraft, personnel and other supporting systems.

“From this [training] we will be able to evaluate our strength,” Ida said, as quoted in a report by

In a report by VOA Indonesia on Feb. 28, Mahfudz Siddik, the chairman of the House of Representatives’ Commission I, which oversees foreign and defense affairs, said his commission was in full support of the TNI’s plan to boost security in the Natuna area.

“The TNI commander has shared with us his plans to make the Natuna Islands a frontier base for the TNI, which is important and strategic for Indonesia because it will help efforts to secure Indonesia’s maritime area, particularly in an area that sees heavy traffic,” he said.

“Additionally, that is also a step to anticipate or respond to the increasing tensions in the South China Sea.”

Mahfudz said that House Commission I was discussing the plan with the government, especially on issues related to budgeting for the TNI.

“The TNI commander has not yet shared the details of the budget that will be needed, but this has been included in the allocated budget for the military in 2014 and may also extend to the 2015 annual budget. The point is, the development of the Natuna area as a frontier base has been allocated,” Mahfudz said.

Military analyst Wawan Purwanto said efforts to strengthen the military presence in border areas should be a priority.

“It is areas that border directly with other countries that are most sensitive and need to be strengthened. And Indonesia has recently been enhancing its weaponry defense system, especially its radar, its missile system, as well its armament and its equipment,” Wawan said as quoted by VOA Indonesia.

Australian drones

To Indonesia’s south, meanwhile, Australia on Thursday announced plans for a fleet of giant high-tech unmanned drones to help patrol borders and monitoring energy infrastructure and attempts to enter the country illegally.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the Triton unmanned aerial vehicles, which can remain airborne for 33 hours, would be based in the southern city of Adelaide.

A report in February said seven of the US-made drones would be purchased for A$3 billion ($2.7 billion), but Abbott said the details of how many, when they would be bought and the cost had not yet been finalized.

“These aircraft will patrol Australia’s vast ocean approaches, and work closely with other existing and future Australian Defense Force assets to secure our ocean resources, including energy resources off northern Australia, and help to protect our borders,” he said.

“They will provide the Australian Defense Force with unprecedented maritime surveillance capabilities, operating at altitudes up to 55,000 feet [16,800 meters] over extremely long ranges while remaining airborne for up to 33 hours.”

Australia, a close ally of the United States, is expected to use the drones to patrol far over the Indian Ocean, which has become one of the world’s most vital energy supply routes.

They could also be used to detect illegal fishermen and asylum seekers, who frequently enter Australian waters to the north on rickety boats, usually setting sail from Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

The asylum-seeker and fishermen issues, along with allegations of spying on senior Indonesians officials and incursions by the Australian navy into Indonesian waters, have seriously dented bilateral relations.

Indonesia suspended cooperation in a number of areas including intelligence sharing on people smuggling and military exercises following last year’s revelations that Australia had tapped the phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and others, in 2009.

The Australian drone announcement comes just weeks after Canberra said it would buy eight new Poseidon aircraft for A$4 billion to form the core of its surveillance and maritime strike capacity for decades to come.

“Given that Australia has responsibility for something like 11 percent of the world’s oceans, it’s very important that we’ve got a very effective maritime surveillance capability,” Abbott said.

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