Indonesia moves ASEAN military drills to uncontested waters in South China Sea

Tria Dianti
Indonesia moves ASEAN military drills to uncontested waters in South China Sea Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo walks past the country’s flag on a navy ship during his visit to a military base in the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea, Jan. 8, 2020.
[Handout/Presidential Palace/AFP]

Indonesia is moving the first planned military exercise with other Southeast Asian nations away from disputed South China Sea waters where Beijing has increasingly been asserting its sweeping territorial claims. 

The Indonesian military announced Wednesday a change of location for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations exercise, scheduled for Sept. 18-25. The non-combat drills were originally planned to take place in the North Natuna Sea, which lies within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) but parts of which China claims. 

Indonesia is this year’s holder of the rotating ASEAN chairmanship.

The new ASEAN exercise locations “include Batam [near Singapore] and the waters of South Natuna that are part of Indonesia’s archipelagic sea lane,” military spokesman Col. Suhendro Oktosatrio said. He was referring to designated areas where foreign ships are allowed passage while transiting through those waters innocently.

These new locations were chosen because they were suitable for non-combat drills such as joint maritime patrols, medical evacuation and disaster relief, said another Indonesian military official, Rear Adm. Julius Widjojono.

“Priority is given to areas that are prone to [natural] disasters,” he said. 

Indonesia renamed the southern reaches of the South China Sea the North Natuna Sea in 2017, to emphasize its sovereignty over those waters, which encompass natural gas fields. 

Indonesia does not have any territorial disputes with China, but it has repeatedly lodged protests against Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels entering its EEZ near the Natuna Islands.

China has claimed “traditional rights” over fishing resources in the area. China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Taiwan and ASEAN member-states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. 

In 2016, a U.N. arbitration court ruled that China’s nine-dash line, a boundary used by Beijing on Chinese maps to illustrate its claim, was invalid. But Beijing has rejected the ruling and insisted it has jurisdiction over all areas within the dashed line.

Chinese officials said back then that the nine dashes were “for security and order at sea.”

China has built artificial islands and military installations on some reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, raising concerns among other claimants and the United States.

The United States has regularly conducted “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea to challenge China’s claims and has urged ASEAN countries to stand up to Beijing’s assertiveness. 

Indonesia’s military commander Adm. Yudo Margono, who proposed the ASEAN drill during a meeting of the bloc’s defense forces chiefs in Bali earlier this month, said the joint drills would enhance regional stability and “boost our countries’ economy.”

‘Afraid of clashing’

But Cambodia and Myanmar, two ASEAN members with strong ties to China, did not take part in an initial planning conference for the exercise on Monday, according to military spokesman Suhendro. It was not clear whether they would join the drills.

The Indonesian military said it sent official invitations for the planning meeting to the Cambodian and Burmese defense attachés in Jakarta but got no response.

Myanmar, which has been wracked by violence since the military ousted an elected government in 2021, is persona non grata at major ASEAN meetings.

Cambodia’s defense ministry said earlier this month it had not decided on participation in the ASEAN joint exercise, saying that it was still waiting for more information from Indonesia, according to media reports in that country.

Arie Afriansyah, an expert in international sea law at the University of Indonesia, said there could be many reasons for the change of the locations, such as safety and security considerations.

“Maybe they are afraid of clashing with other countries. If it is conducted in South Natuna, Indonesia has full control in that area,” Arie told BenarNews.

“It would be a shame if fear of China is the reason, because this exercise is a way for ASEAN countries to show their unity on the North Natuna and South China Sea issue, which Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines also support,” he said.

The joint ASEAN drill is planned as an effort to maintain regional stability, Khairul Fahmi, a military and security observer from the Institute for Security and Strategic Studies, told BenarNews.

“The message will not come across well if some ASEAN countries are not on board,” he said.


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