On board a US Navy reconnaissance plane, the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, US Admiral John Aquilino, appeared on March 20, flying near the outposts controlled by China in the "Spratly" archipelago in the South China Sea.

Aquilino spoke to reporters who took them on a trip over the China Sea to highlight Beijing's militarization of the islands, as the latter has fully armed at least three islands, and said that Beijing has deployed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems on those islands, laser and jamming equipment, and combat aircraft.

In response to this trip, in which Washington criticized the focus of Chinese military activity over the past few years, the Chinese newspaper "Global Times" attacked Aquilino, accusing him of trying to copy the Ukraine crisis in the Asia-Pacific region, and of mobilizing allies and partners in the region against China.

That incident was a reference to international disputes over one of the most disputed areas in the world, as Indonesia and China claim control of the territories in the South China Sea that lie on the borders of the Indonesian “Natuna” islands, as China considers that about 90% of the sea Which has an area of ​​3.5 million square kilometers of its own sea, citing historical usage records in support of its claims, while Indonesia, which is located on the southern fringes of the South China Sea, considers that the area with an estimated 1.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves is Its exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Beijing and Jakarta... a complex present and a bright past

In late 2019, the world almost witnessed a military conflict between Indonesia and China as a result of the latter's practices in the Pacific economic region, which Indonesia calls the "North Natuna Sea" while Beijing considers it a traditional Chinese fishing area.

At this exact time, the Chinese coast guard force began to penetrate into the region, and Jakarta found no way but to send warships and F-16 fighter planes, and also invited Indonesian fishing ships to move to the area, but the tension subsided quickly after China retreated from the area. penetrate it.

The two countries quickly worked to thaw the ice in their relationship, especially since recent history testifies to the strength of that relationship, as Indonesia was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China in 1950, and that relationship reached its climax with the end of the Cold War and the rise of the Chinese economy, Jakarta accelerated the strengthening of relations with Beijing in 1990, and things developed after the signing of a strategic partnership agreement between the two countries in 2005. This relationship was based on China's strong desire to keep Indonesia as a supportive ally in regional conflicts and a strategic bulwark against pro-Western Australia, while Jakarta sought To make the most of the economic partnership with Beijing, as the latter is its first trading partner, and there are Chinese workers in important infrastructure projects in Indonesia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) shakes hands with Indonesian President Joko Widodo 2016 (Reuters)

Indonesia has joined the ranks of the countries participating in China's Belt and Road Initiative and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Under Indonesian President Joko Widodo, China has spent billions of dollars on new highways, power stations and a high-speed rail line in Indonesia, and has provided the country with about 80% of COVID vaccines.

Jakarta between Washington and Beijing... The legacy of non-alignment

U.S. Army soldiers participate in the inaugural Garuda Shield 2021 joint exercise at the Indonesian Army's Combat Training Center in Baturaga.

(Reuters)

Other than China, Indonesia also has well-established relations with the United States, extending to military cooperation.

For example, this April, the Indonesian and American militaries announced the expansion of their regular bilateral annual exercises since 2009, scheduled to be held from 1 to 14 August of this year, to include 14 countries in this version, and is held under the name " Super Garuda Shield.

For China at least, these exercises are a sign that Jakarta is taking strong steps towards its American archenemy, as China views the US presence in the region with suspicion, under the pretext of "supporting the free and open Indo-Pacific region," as stated in the US military statement.

At a time when the two superpowers are seeking to strengthen their presence in Southeast Asia, it is no secret that the United States is intensifying its presence in Indonesia in order to counter the growing influence of China in the region, and there are many signs of that. In late June, Jakarta and Washington began building a training center A $3.5 million offshore project in Batam, near Singapore and the southern entrance to the Malacca Strait, is dangerous for Beijing given the planned center's proximity to trade routes between the South China Sea and the Strait.

Looking back, it can be said that US-Indonesian relations have oscillated over decades. Washington had a role in supporting the overthrow of Indonesia's founding president, "Sukarno" and pushing for the rise of "Suharto," the general who ruled authoritarian rule until 1998, as well as the strained Indonesian relationship with Washington During the rule of President Bill Clinton, who pressured Jakarta to accept punitive terms for an International Monetary Fund bailout in 1998, and authorized a referendum on the independence of East Timor in Indonesia.

Before that, Indonesia had been considered an American sphere of influence for decades, but the relationship remained forgotten for Americans until recently.

While the United States was mainly preoccupied with supporting the two traditional allies of the United States in Northeast Asia, namely Japan and South Korea, China achieved remarkable success in Indonesia thanks to its huge investments, especially during the era of current President "Joko Widodo" who seeks to benefit from both sides to achieve economic development.

In recent years, while the escalation between Washington and Beijing has increased, Washington has begun to restore interest in Indonesia as an important economic and security partner, with which rapprochement will reduce Beijing's presence. coal-fired, and more.

In terms of military cooperation between the two countries, Indonesia received $39 million in military and security assistance from Washington last year, and $5 million in assistance to build the capabilities of its defense resources, including strengthening maritime security, between 2016 and 2020.

But despite the American efforts, which believe that now is the perfect time to attract Indonesia and keep it away from China, Washington collides with several factors that may hinder its aspirations to consolidate its role and reduce China. The most important factor is Indonesia's long-standing official insistence on avoiding outright alignment with a particular superpower, a legacy of the "Non-Aligned Movement" it co-founded since the 1950s, as well as the bad history of joining one camp at the expense of another in Southeast Asia. And, of course, the most famous pages of that history are the Vietnam War.

Tensions rise between Washington and China

In early December, China's demand for Indonesia to halt oil and gas exploration in the economic zone northeast of the Natuna Islands provoked decision makers in Jakarta, with Beijing claiming drilling was taking place in its sovereign area, while Beijing authorized the Chinese research vessel "Hayang Daisy". To cross into Indonesian waters and stay until late October.

Undoubtedly, Beijing wanted, by asserting its claim to part of Indonesia’s waters, to teach Jakarta a lesson that it could change the “status quo” if it so desired, and this was the latest pressure attempt from China in which it asserts its territorial claims in the South China Sea, those demands that increase the possibility of Clashes with Indonesia.

Faced with increasing Chinese pressure on contested waters, Indonesia had to reset its defense diplomacy and consider the implications of China's pursuit of control in the region.

For this reason, it seems that Jakarta is now striving more to avoid excessive dependence on one country in the economic field in order to avoid exposure to external pressures, as the country has recently signed several strategic partnerships with important powers such as Japan, India, Australia and the United States, as well as keeping the door for cooperation open with China itself. .

The increasing role of the Chinese Coast Guard in the South China Sea has also pushed Jakarta to become more inclined towards other major powers in order to develop its maritime and air security. Besar, which is the largest island in the region, has beefed up naval patrols to counter China's illegal activities in Indonesian waters.

The increasing role of the Chinese Coast Guard in the South China Sea has prompted Jakarta to become more inclined towards other major powers to improve its maritime and air security.

In the same vein, Jakarta is working today to ensure that there are no further cuts in defense spending in the near future;

What may affect the strengthening of defense and military relations between it and the countries of the region, or hinder the balance of its military modernization and regional defense against Beijing. The country, since the presidency of “Yodhoyono” (ruled until 2014) has constantly increased its defense budget to modernize its weapons systems, and is working to strengthen its maritime security agency which is still in the process of being transformed into a fully qualified coast guard force.

In its quest to diversify its alliances and its sources of supply with military equipment, the United States is attending as a country with which military cooperation can achieve the goals of the Indonesian government. Not only has the Indonesian army and its Maritime Security Agency developed close relations with Washington, but it has gone beyond that to the implementation of joint military exercises on the islands. Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi.

In June 2021, the United States began building a naval training center on the Indonesian island of Batam, at a strategic location at the southern entrance to the Strait of Malacca. In the same month, Jakarta also signed a deal to purchase 14 American F-15EX fighter jets for $14 billion.

In order to diversify the portfolio of its supporters more and more, Jakarta also turned to European countries. Last February, the largest Southeast Asian country purchased 42 French-made Rafale combat aircraft for $ 8 billion, with parallel talks to buy French submarines.

Indonesian soldiers stand guard near a French Rafale fighter plane at a military base in Balang Bintang, Indonesia.

In light of these accelerating developments on the Indonesian scene, observers raise the possibility that Beijing will use its vast economic resources to exert political pressure on Jakarta in order to protect its interests and confront the Indonesian military development, which may threaten to escalate tensions in the disputed waters north of the Natuna Islands, but a report prepared by The American "Stratfor" Center for Geopolitical Studies rules out that the military development in Indonesia will lead to an escalation of tensions with China;

This forces Jakarta to accept the potential economic cost of Chinese retaliation.

China's response to Indonesia's military build-up is likely to include increased tariffs and tighter import controls on key Indonesian goods, and adds: "As an export-oriented country, Indonesia is very vulnerable to sudden tariff increases, and China has used tariffs as a retaliatory measure in the past against rival nations."

The report rules out that Indonesia will sacrifice its national security and territorial integrity for the sake of economic continuity. If China controls these islands or the surrounding area, it will undermine Indonesia’s security position by giving Chinese forces a close launching pad for attacks against the country, and as stated in the report: “Pushing Indonesia to strengthen its defense capabilities may not necessarily lead to increased cooperation with the United States, as Jakarta is likely to prefer working with regional defense and security actors rather than working directly with China’s main competitor.”

In the end, it can be said that Indonesia has a strategic position in the era of competition between Washington and Beijing;

It can play a major role in maintaining ASEAN unity so that the region can manage Sino-American competition, and in order to protect its long-term prosperity and sovereignty, it needs to maximize the current potential of its relations with both powers, by creating a greater balance in its relations with them without compromising its neutral foreign policy strategy.

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