Singapore: Australia’s plan to arm itself with a fleet of nuclear-propelled submarines to combat the rising threat of China has been met with alarm by near neighbour Indonesia.
South-east Asia’s largest country has expressed unease about Australia’s dramatic enhancing of its military, notably its intention to use US technology to build eight nuclear-powered submarines as part of the new three-way defence alliance with Washington DC and London.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has maintained good ties with China despite issues over sovereignty near the Natuna Islands.Credit:AP
In a statement issued on Friday, Indonesia foreign affairs spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said Jakarta had taken note of Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines and stressed “Indonesia is deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region”.
“Indonesia stresses the importance of Australia’s commitment to continue meeting all of its nuclear non-proliferation obligations,” the statement said.
“Indonesia calls on Australia to maintain its commitment towards regional peace, stability and security in accordance with the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation [the code of conduct between the Association of South-east Asian Nations].
“Indonesia encourages Australia and other parties concerned to advance dialogue in settling any differences peacefully. In this regard, Indonesia underscores the respect for international law, including UNCLOS 1982 [United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea], in maintaining peace and security in the region.”
Diplomatic relations between Canberra and Jakarta have been labelled their best in decades and it was only last week that Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton made the Indonesian capital their first stop on an overseas jaunt which has taken in India, South Korea and the United States.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday he was calling Indonesia President Joko Widodo about the new defence pact and Australia’s submarine plans. Payne also rang counterpart Retno Marsudi on Thursday morning to tell her about the submarines.
Indonesia is not only caught geographically in the middle of the intensifying strategic competition between US-backed Australia and China.
Joko’s government is also balancing relations between the adversaries under a long-standing foreign policy mantra of non-alignment.
Indonesia is not technically a rival claimant to China in the South China Sea but tensions escalated last year over fishing rights near the Natuna Islands after the discovery of Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing boats inside Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
Despite that, Indonesia has maintained healthy ties with China, with Beijing its leading investor and top trading partner.
China and Australia both came to Indonesia’s aid this year when an ageing submarine with 53 crew aboard went missing off while undertaking an exercise off the coast of Bali.
It was declared sunk and Indonesia then took up China’s offer to lead the recovery effort.
That tragedy highlighted Indonesia’s own shortcomings with naval capacity despite Joko’s vision to make Indonesia a maritime power in the region. The lost KRI Nanggala 420, which was a 40-year-old German-built model, was one of only five submarines in the Indonesian fleet.
Indonesia is now reportedly planning to increase its number of submarines to 12.
Australia and Indonesia last week announced plans to deepen their bilateral security ties, including more counter-terrorism cooperation and possibly joint military training in Australia.
The two countries already take part in naval exercises at sea, as Indonesia still does with China, most recently in May in the Java Sea.
– with Karuni Rompies
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