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China, US join naval drills in Indonesia amid rising tensions

Komodo Exercise (Construction Electrician 3rd Class Santiago Guzman Jr/US Navy)
June 07, 2023

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

The United States and China are taking part this week in a multilateral naval exercise, which kicked off in Indonesian waters on Monday, despite tensions growing between the two superpowers over Taiwan and the South China Sea.

The three nations are joining 33 others in the Multilateral Naval Exercise Komodo, which Indonesia is hosting through Thursday in the Makassar Strait, a strategic waterway that connects the Pacific and Indian oceans.

The drills will focus on maritime cooperation, disaster relief and humanitarian operations, officials said. The Komodo Exercise is a series of non-combat drills to build trust and solidarity among naval forces, the Indonesian Navy said, according to a report from BenarNews, an online news outlet affiliated to Radio Free Asia.

“This activity is intended to strengthen naval diplomacy and I think this must continue to be nurtured,” Adm. Yudo Margono, commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces, said during an opening ceremony at Soekarno-Hatta Port in Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi province.

The drills also are intended to foster cooperation in securing the Indonesian sea areas that border 10 countries, Yudo said. 

The Indonesian Navy said the drills involve 41 warships, 17 of which are from foreign countries, including the United States, China and Russia.

The drills are taking place against a backdrop of heightened tensions between China and the United States in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

China claims most of the waterway as its sovereign territory. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have territorial claims in the sea. While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the waterway that overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

‘Navigational hegemony’

Beijing has repeatedly accused the U.S. of “navigation hegemony” in the South China Sea.

This past weekend, the U.S. military accused a Chinese navy ship of sailing dangerously close in front of the bow of an American destroyer during an intercept in Taiwan Strait waters.

China’s defense ministry issued a dueling statement saying that Chinese forces had been tracking the movements of the U.S. destroyer, which was sailing with a Canadian warship. Its forces had conducted themselves “lawfully and professionally,” the ministry said. 

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has not ruled out using force to bring the island under its control.

The biennial Komodo drills, which began in 2014, also consist of an international symposium, bilateral meetings and a maritime exhibition. Other participants this year include Australia, Brazil, France, Japan, Pakistan and the United Kingdom.

The United States embassy in Jakarta said the exercise would allow it to “join together with like-minded countries, our allies and partners to work together to solve common challenges” such as humanitarian response and disaster.

China’s Ministry of National Defense said last week that it would send a destroyer and a frigate at the invitation of the Indonesian Navy.

On Monday, Indonesian  Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto met with his counterparts from Australia and Germany in Jakarta to discuss defense cooperation.

Prabowo said Indonesia’s relationship with Australia was supported by mutual trust, transparency and a joint commitment to a stable, peaceful, resilient and prosperous region.

“Indonesia’s cooperation with Australia can provide an important contribution to regional peace and stability,” he said.

He also said Indonesia and Germany had enjoyed good bilateral relations and defense cooperation for more than a decade.

“We are determined to continue strengthening cooperation and I promise to make an honorary return visit to Germany,” he said.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said that he and Prabowo had discussed some issues that were topics at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security forum held in Singapore over the weekend. He declined to give details.