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Indonesia aims to avoid 'poking China's eye' over weapons trade with Philippines, walk 'political' tightrope

South China Morning Post - January 22, 2024

Maria Siow – Defence ties between Indonesia and the Philippines have grown steadily under the radar over the past decade, but Jakarta's offer to sell anti-submarine aircraft to Manila has shone the spotlight on the former's burgeoning defence industry and regional solidarity amid the South China Sea row.

Analysts have also pointed to Indonesia's interest in acquiring Chinese naval missiles, a move some suggest is "political" to assure Beijing that it is not a threat and to avoid "poking China in the eye".

On January 10, during a visit to the Philippines, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said the two countries should boost political and security ties "through concrete steps". He also asked his counterpart Ferdinand Marcos, Jnr to buy anti-submarine aircraft from Indonesia.

The Philippine military said last year that it would deploy anti-submarine aircraft in the South China Sea, given what Manila sees as increasing threats from Chinese ships.

Military analyst Yokie Rahmad Isjchwansyah said Indonesia has huge potential in marketing its defence industry under Defend ID, the country's state-owned enterprise company launched in 2022.

Defend ID's units produce equipment ranging from propellants for munitions, rockets, and weapons to various types of aircraft for military operations and special missions.The Philippines had previously acquired Indonesia-made weapons such as armoured personnel carriers, CN-235 and NC-212i multipurpose aircraft, and landing platform docks and strategic sealift vessels at sea, Yokie Rahmad said.

Some of these Indonesian weapons were also used by other Southeast Asian countries including Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, according to Yokie Rahmad.

Given Manila's status as "a loyal customer" and buyer of several of Indonesia's defence equipment, it was unsurprising Widodo made the offer to Marcos Jnr, he added.

"The acquisition could strengthen the armed forces of the Philippines, especially the navy," he said.

"The offer from Widodo is not only purely economic but also shows solidarity among Asean countries in addressing the South China Sea conflict," he added, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc.

In recent months, China and the Philippines have been involved in several confrontations in the South China Sea, with both sides trading accusations of provoking conflict in the disputed waterway, including charges that a Chinese coastguard vessel rammed a ship last month carrying the Philippine armed forces chief of staff.

Indonesia last year issued a joint statement with the United States to express concerns over Beijing's claims in the South China Sea. Its military is also wary about China's incursions in waters around Indonesia's Natuna Islands.

Muhammad Faizal Bin Abdul Rahman, a research fellow on regional security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore said that as a small arms exporter, Indonesia has been boosting its defence industry's manufacturing capabilities.

This is mainly to support its military modernisation in light of "rising geostrategic competition", Muhammad Faizal said, adding that as a "regional middle power", Indonesia also wanted to show "indirect support" to the Philippines.

"[Manila] is now the frontline Asean state actively challenging China's expansive maritime claims," he said. Nonetheless, greater intra-Asean military support against conventional security threats is unlikely for now, he added.

"Member states have disparate policy views and approaches to tensions involving the major powers," Muhammad Faizal said, adding that Asean would not undertake any action that could create an impression of an alliance given China's warning against the creation of an "Asian Nato".

Last year, China's former defence minister Li Shangfu said that any attempts to push for Nato-like alliances in the Asia-Pacific region "is a way of kidnapping regional countries and exaggerating conflicts and confrontations".

China has continued to assert claims to a wide swathe of the South China Sea, asserting that over 80 per cent of the disputed waterway is its sovereign territory.

Acquiring Chinese-made missile system

Separately, the Indonesian navy is said to be showing interest in acquiring the Chinese-made YJ-12E coastal missile system, the Asia-Pacific Defence Journal reported.

The publication said that the research and development service of the Indonesian navy had certified that the system could be acquired and even produced locally.

The YJ-12E has a range of 290km and possesses an advanced flight speed and strong penetration ability, which makes it "an effective weapon to break through hostile missile defence system", according to China's nationalistic tabloid The Global Times.

RSIS' Muhammad Faizal said that while other countries chose arms suppliers in a way that prioritised strategic alliances and interoperability between different systems, Indonesia might be making choices based on the aim of reducing its dependence on a few suppliers.

Indonesia imports military weapons primarily from Italy, Sweden, South Korea, Belgium and the United States.

"Procuring Chinese arms may be less of a military modernisation move, but more of a political move to assure China that Indonesia is not a threat," he said pointing to Malaysia which has procured Chinese patrol vessels as a way "to show determination to repel maritime incursions, but without poking China in the eye".

Military analyst Yokie Rahmad said that while Jakarta's stance is to be open to all available options in strengthening the country's defence posture, acquiring the Chinese-made system is "not a wise decision" given escalating tensions in the region.

"[And besides] there are many coastal defence missiles [available from other countries] that the Indonesian government can explore," he said.

These include the BrahMos jointly manufactured by BrahMos Aerospace, a joint venture between India and Russia, and the Naval Strike Missile – an anti-ship and land-attack missile – developed by Norway's Kongsberg defence & Aerospace.

Yohanes Sulaiman, associate professor of international relations at the Jenderal Achmad Yani University in West Java said it is unlikely that Indonesia would purchase the Chinese system as "China is currently seen as a threat to regional stability" due to its so-called "nine-dash line" that indicates its maritime sovereignty claim.

While China accepts that the Natuna Islands belong to Indonesia, a part of the "nine-dash line" overlaps with Indonesia's exclusive economic zone, which has previously led to stand-offs between legal enforcement agencies of both countries.

"Chinese missiles are [also] seen as having reliability issues," Yohanes said, noting that in 2016, Chinese C-705 anti-ship missiles failed to hit their targets during an Indonesian exercise in front of Widodo.

According to Yohanes, the move by the Indonesian navy to certify the YJ-12E system is "simply a face-saving gesture to the Chinese".

Source: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3249361/indonesia-aims-avoid-poking-chinas-eye-over-weapons-trade-philippines-walk-political-tightrop