Will China reconsider its alleged intentions to set up its next military base in Indonesia?

Indonesia's free and active foreign policy approach is still seen as relevant due to the complexity of global challenges today

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the US Department of Defense (Pentagon) report, which alleged that China is likely considering building numerous military facilities in some countries in Asia and Africa, including Indonesia.

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in a press briefing emphasised that Indonesia’s territory could not and would not be used as military facilities and bases for any country, in line with the country’s popularly known ‘free and active’ foreign policy principles.

“I want to emphasize that, in accordance with the lines and principles of Indonesian foreign policy, Indonesian territory cannot and will not be used as a military facility base for any country,” she stressed.

The archipelagic nation’s ‘free and active’ foreign policy, introduced by then vice-president and renowned statesman Mohammad Hatta in September 1948, refers to Indonesia’s decision to refrain from aligning itself with any global superpower and their influences or ideologies.

The policy was introduced three years after Indonesia gained its independence.

The relevance of free and active foreign policy

Some international affairs analysts claim that Indonesia’s ‘free and active’ foreign policy approach is still relevant until today despite the complexity of global challenges after the collapse of communism.

Arry Bainus, international affairs expert at Padjajaran University in Bandung told TOC: “I think it is still relevant despite the end of the communism-capitalism rivalry. The nature of international politics is always about competition. In the Cold War, we see the West versus the Eastern blocs.”

“Now, the rivalry is becoming more complex than ever. The US and China spat, for example, has expanded from trade issues to military and technology as well,” he opined.

Yusran from Budi Luhur University in Jakarta echoed the statement, adding that Indonesia’s foreign policy approach enables the country to be more active in pushing for global peace.

“We understand that many will question whether the ‘free and active’ approach still makes sense in the dynamic global situation. The answer is yes, it is still relevant. So, we will not be dragged to take sides with any global powers,” he told TOC on Monday.

Report released amid ongoing tensions in South China Sea

The Pentagon report came amid ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, the oil-rich waters disputed by China, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

Arry warned that any foreign military bases in Indonesia could risk the country’s security.

“We must calculate the benefit and risks. In case a conflict erupts in the South China Sea—hopefully, something bad will not happen—a foreign military base here can trigger the assumption that we take side with certain nations. Of course, we want to avoid such a thing,” he added.

China’s increasing activity in the disputed waters was one of the factors that strengthened the Pentagon’s report.

Earlier this year, Indonesia’s military was investigating China’s suspicious activities in the South China Sea.

Indonesia’s Navy Rear Adm. Muhammad Ali stated that China intentionally turned atolls — a ring-shaped coral reef including a coral rim that encircles a lagoon partially or completely — into artificial islands used for military bases, CNN Indonesia reported.

Indonesia’s investigation could not be separated from the Natuna Waters dispute at the end of 2019 when a Chinese coast guard ship safeguarded several Chinese fishing boats into areas within China’s ‘nine-dashed line’—which is against international maritime law—but are inside Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (ZEE) close to the Natuna Islands.

TOC understands that Indonesia pursues multilateral negotiations to solve the South China Sea dispute and strives to maintain a good relationship with all countries, including the US and China.

Indonesia and ASEAN have also confirmed that both will not be dragged into the US-China rivalry in the contested waters.

“We have no overlapping claims with China [despite China’s opposing statement that it has overlapping claims with Indonesia].

“However, we must not forget about the ASEAN’s failure to produce a joint communiqué on the South China Sea in the organisation’s ministerial meeting in Cambodia’s Phnom Penh 2012 due to China’s actions,” Arry said.

Indonesia’s then-Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa acknowledged that the aforementioned event was his diplomatic failure during his career.

However, China’s softer stance in ASEAN is merely seen as the effort to detach the bloc from the US’ influence.

Despite Indonesia’s claim that the Pentagon report was baseless, Indonesia must pay attention to its military strategy, given that China and other countries are modernising their war equipment.

“Indonesia can be one of the world’s military powers as it ranked the 16th according to Global Fire Power ranking. However, what about our defence strategy? We continue to strengthen our army while the government promises to boost our maritime.

“Many countries are developing their nuclear-powered and non-nuclear attack submarines while at the same time producing anti-ship missiles. Therefore, military spending must focus on improving personnel’s welfare, modernising weapons, and restructuring organisations,” Arry said.

Indonesia is ranked 10th in the world’s strongest navy forces, as ranked by Global Fire Power. It has seven frigates, 282 total assets, five submarines, 24 corvettes, ten mine warfare, and 156 patrols.

Singapore is strengthening its military by focusing on the use of advanced technology. The country’s Air Force, for example, operates 20 Apache AH Longbow AH-64D helicopters, one of the best fighter jets in its class.

Furthermore, the tiny country was interested in upgrading 12 out of 20 helicopters to the latest variant, IHS Jane’s reported cited in Asia Pacific Defense Journal.

Forbes contributor H I Sutton wrote that China and Russia are preparing their non-nuclear submarines, which are less costly and can be easily exported to other countries.

“But China has gone its own way with submarine design and has the indigenous capability to build any category of sub. And while there are still categories of the submarine where Russia is clearly ahead, in the field of non-nuclear submarines, it is less clear cut. Certainly, China’s capabilities in this space should not be underestimated,” the defence contributor wrote.

China’s reputation has been rising in Asia and Africa

The 200-page Pentagon report was based on China’s increased investment in Africa and Latin America, accumulated from the Pentagon intelligence report. Therefore, the Pentagon could be sure that China would pick a country for its military base.

“The Pentagon see that China’s investment in Indonesia has grown in the past decade. So, my conclusion, it could be one of the indicators that China would choose Indonesia as one of its military bases,” Yusran assumed.

China’s investment in Indonesia was the second biggest after Singapore in the first half of the year, worth US$ 2.4 billion, up 9 per cent from US$ 2.2 billion in the same period in 2019, official data stated.

A survey from the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) conducted in the middle of 2019 showed that China’s influence had risen in the past decade in Asia, including in Indonesia, cited in CNN Indonesia. Even in 2019, China’s influence exceeded that of the US.

However, negative perceptions over rising China’s influence are growing, the survey revealed.  Political and economic factors have created both positive and negative sentiments of China.

China’s OBOR initiative triggers a controversy

Despite the negative sentiments, African nations appear to view China positively due to its relatively clean history, free from the baggage of colonialism in Africa.

In 2016, the China-Africa trade hit $ 128 billion—a drastic spike from $1 billion in 1980. In the Forum Cooperation on China and Africa (FOCAC) in September 2018, China offered $60 billion for financing development until 2021, Reuters reported.

China’s ambitious infrastructure project called One Belt One Road (OBOR) or Belt Road Initiative (BRI)—introduced by the country’s leader Xi Jinping in 2013—plans to connect 70 countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe to boost trade routes.

Critics, however, view OBOR as a project that benefits China.

Western experts see the initiative as a tool to strengthen China’s dominance, enabling Beijing to boost its military as well.

Djibouti is first China’s overseas military base, set up in 2017. The African nation is relatively stable in the volatile region, making it a suitable base for several foreign powers.

Djibouti is located between Somalia, Eritrea, and Yemen, which allows it to play a vital role in international shipping, as Abdi Latif Dahir wrote in QZ Africa.

China’s military base may indicate how it continues to expand its influence in Africa and elsewhere.

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