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Indonesian Navy now conducting its own major exercise amid South China Sea tensions

Chinese coast guard (Indian Navy/WikiCommons)
July 24, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Indonesia is staging a major naval exercise this week in the Java Sea and the South China Sea, the contested waterway where tensions have risen lately between China and the United States.

The Indonesian Navy’s Western Fleet held an exercise in the Java Sea on Wednesday as part of a series of drills by Southeast Asia’s largest nation that began on July 18 and are scheduled to conclude Sunday, naval officials said. These will include an amphibious warfare exercise on the beach at Singkep, an island in Indonesia’s Riau chain in the South China Sea, they said.

The program includes sea battle simulations and 2,000 personnel, 26 warships, 19 aircraft and 18 marine combat vehicles are taking part in the drills, Naval Fleet Command I spokesman Lt. Col. Fajar Tri Rohadi said.

“At the fleet level, this is the most complex exercise, because there will be more exercises involving all naval units,” Fajar told BenarNews on Wednesday. The day’s drills in the Java Sea included damage control activities, communications, simulations of anti-submarine and surface warfare, he said.

“The exercises were designed to be just like real operations,” Naval Fleet I chief Rear Adm. Ahmadi Heri Purwono said, according to Viva, an Indonesian news portal.

In other developments related to the defense of the archipelago nation’s coasts and territorial waters, the coast guard (Bakamla) announced Wednesday that it had launched the Indonesia Maritime Information Center (IMIC), which will publish periodic reports on the nation’s maritime security.

Sending a message

Beni Sukadis, a military observer at the Indonesian Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies, said the drills are part of the country’s efforts to assert its maritime sovereignty.

“Even though we don’t have many warships, we are showing that we have the determination to assert our sovereignty,” he told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

“In terms of capacity building and professionalism, routine exercises are necessary. It can be once or twice a year. It sends a message that the Navy is trying to improve its capacity,” he added.

According to the Global Fire Power (GFP) 2019 report, Indonesia’s navy has 282 ships in its fleet, including seven frigates, 24 corvettes, five submarines and 156 patrol vessels. However, the Indonesian Navy has no aircraft carriers.

In mid-2019, the military branch conducted a month-long exercise involving 8,493 personnel in the Java Sea.

Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute, which involves the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam – all fellow members of the ASEAN – along with China and Taiwan.

But in 2016 and late 2019, tensions flared between Jakarta and Beijing over the presence of Chinese fishing boats swarming in South China Sea waters near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, which are located in Riau Islands province.

Indonesia has declined China’s invitation to hold talks on what Beijing called “overlapping claims of maritime rights and interests” in waters off the Natunas, which lie in the southern reaches of the South China Sea.

Beijing claims historic and fishing rights in parts of the sea that overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) but Indonesia rejects this.

Meanwhile last week, in the disputed Paracel Islands, a chain claimed by both China and Vietnam, eight Chinese fighter jets were visible at Beijing’s key military base in the area.

The aircraft’s sighting coincided with another round of naval exercises Thursday involving two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups – the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan. The first maneuvers began on July 4 and lasted six days, the first such “dual carrier drill” by the U.S. in the South China Sea in at least four years.

In a watershed statement issued earlier this month, the United States toughened its stance on the South China Sea issue when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that America stood with its Southeast Asian allies “in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources.”

Pompeo included Indonesia’s Natuna Islands in the statement that branded Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea as “completely unlawful.”

The two rival superpowers have since traded verbal criticism over the South China Sea. Beijing, through its embassy in Washington, responded to Pompeo by accusing America of continuing to “interfere” in the South China Sea issue and “stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region” as well as flexing its muscles “under the pretext of preserving stability.”

In recent days, apart from its public denunciation of Beijing’s claims and actions in the South China Sea, the United States has also carried out a series of actions targeting China, including sanctions over China’s imposition of harsh security laws in Hong Kong and over human rights abuses against Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.