This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Indonesia and the United States, with additional participation from Australia, Japan and Singapore, kicked off a joint military exercise on Monday in a show of defense partnership amid rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific region.
The annual joint exercise “Super Garuda Shield” is “significantly larger in scope and scale than previous exercises, with many nations participating or observing for the first time,” according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.
Some 4,000 mostly Indonesian and U.S. troops are taking part in the two-week drills in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
“This is a purely military-to-military exercise,” Maj. Gen. Stephen Smith, commander of the participating U.S. troops, said at a press briefing in Jakarta on Friday.
“This is not a threat or should not be viewed as a threat to anybody, anywhere,” Smith said.
The exercise comes as China announced a series of live-fire drills in the South China Sea amid rumors of a planned visit to Taiwan by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representative, Nancy Pelosi.
Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute but Jakarta shares interests in exploring maritime resources in the contested waters.
At an event held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think-tank, assistant U.S. secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs Ely Ratner said there had been a dramatic increase in Chinese military ships and aircraft acting aggressively toward other forces in the region.
“If the PLA continues this pattern of behavior, it is only a matter of time before there is a major incident or accident in the region,” Ratner said, referring to China’s People’s Liberation Army.
The larger scale of the exercise, and extended participation of partners and observers, is a “calculated decision” by Jakarta, according to an Indonesian analyst.
“The point is to show that Indonesia can cooperate with whoever she wants,” said Satya Pratama, a senior Indonesian government official and maritime defense analyst.
“Indonesia has a ‘free and active’ foreign policy: free to engage with whichever partner and friend; and active in ensuring global security based on Indonesia’s national interests,” Satya said.
Traditionally, the Garuda Shield exercises only involved the army and paratroopers but Super Garuda Shield 2022 also involves the navies of expanded participants, including Japan and Singapore.
“The inclusion of the navy into the training agenda represents a shift in strategic thinking that Indonesia’s territorial waters and jurisdictions are now becoming more vulnerable to external threats,” said Dedi Dinarto, lead Indonesia analyst at public policy advisory firm Global Counsel.
The selection of the Riau Islands as one of the training locations in Super Garuda Shield 2022 is also significant.
In 2016 and early 2020, tensions flared over the presence of Chinese fishing boats in the waters near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands where Beijing told Jakarta to stop drilling for oil and gas.
“The Riau Islands Province covers the North Natuna Sea, and the naval training in this area could help participating countries understand the operating context behind these incidents,” Dedi said.
By choosing the Riau Islands, “it reveals the strategic weight defense policymakers are placing on strengthening the outer provinces as Indonesia’s defense frontier.”
The training will also take place in Amborawang Darat in East Kalimantan province, close to the new capital city project in Penajem Paser Utara, said Dedi Dinarto, adding that this year’s exercise “presents an opportunity for Indonesia’s military to demonstrate their abilities in safeguarding the new capital from potential threats.”
‘Free and open Indo-Pacific’
The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta said the exercise “strengthens the U.S.-Indonesia Strategic Partnership and advances regional cooperation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
“Trainings, academic exchanges, and professional development workshops focused on the corps-level and below will focus on areas such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as combating conventional, unconventional and hybrid threats,” the Embassy said.
Super Garuda Shield 2022 takes place from Aug. 1 to 14, with drills involving the armies, navies and air forces.
Canada, France, India, Malaysia, South Korea, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, and Britain will participate as observer nations.