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AUKUS, China Sea Tensions Put Indonesia in Tight Spot, Analysts Say

By Bronwyn Curran October 23, 2021

Heightened Sino-Australian tensions over the new AUKUS agreement calling for the sharing of U.S. nuclear submarine technology with Australia, along with China's naval expansionism in the South China Sea, have left Indonesia with a delicate balancing act, analysts say.

The AUKUS agreement, which sees Australia acquiring prized U.S. technology to build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, is widely viewed as strategic deterrence by Washington and Canberra against China's aggressive naval expansion in the South China Sea.

Lying between China and Australia, vast archipelagic Indonesia hosts strategic sea lanes linking the Indian and Pacific oceans and connecting the South China Sea with waters off northern Australia. Submarines may pass undetected through its deep-sea trenches.

Indonesia responded to the AUKUS deal by expressing "deep concern over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region" in a restrained five-point statement issued by the Foreign Affairs Ministry in September.

The statement also urged respect for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs navigation through international waters. Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Mahendra Siregar said Indonesia was "worried" that Australia's acquisition of nuclear submarines would spur an arms race and regional instability.

Affront to nonalignment

The flexing of great power rivalry in Indonesia's neighborhood is viewed as an affront to its long-held foreign policy of nonalignment and resolution of regional tensions through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-centered diplomacy and dialogue.

"They are very worried. There's a genuine belief on the part of many Indonesians that they desperately don't want their backyard being a zone for conflict," said analyst David Engel, head of the Indonesia program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

"They think Australia might be deployed in what they consider to be their sea, and waging conflict from it. This is one of their concerns. In the event of a terrible conflict, it's quite conceivable there would be conflict within their 'tanah air' [homeland]. They don't want great power rivalry in their backyard."

AUKUS also has exposed divisions within ASEAN, which Indonesia considers the appropriate forum for easing tensions. Engel said Indonesia's leaders are "especially alarmed because it undermines what they see as central to their whole strategy for preserving peace and stability. They don't want to be in a position where they feel ASEAN members are expected to choose between the U.S. and China."

'Murkying the waters'

In addition, Gilang Kembara, a researcher at the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the AUKUS submarines deal was "murkying the waters" and raising fears of submarine accidents in Indonesian waters.

"Indonesia realizes it doesn't have the capability to clean up any mess that could occur from a malfunction or accident. The addition of nuclear-powered submarines is adding one more to the club. We already have India and China with the same capabilities," Kembara told VOA.

Equally affronting to Indonesia's closely held sense of sovereignty are last month's incursions by Chinese coast guard and survey vessels along its northern maritime border.

Just as Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi spoke of "deep concern" about the AUKUS submarines deal, the Chinese vessels appeared on Indonesia's horizon and lingered for a month along its exclusive economic zone in the resource rich North Natuna Sea, close to a rig where undersea gas exploration was under way.

Britain-based oil and gas producer Harbour Energy in partnership with state-owned Russian company Zarubezhneft is exploring the area, using a rented Malaysian submersible oil rig. Some observers say the survey vessel was mapping the seabed for hydrocarbon reserves.

"It's curious to see that at the same time as Indonesia put out its measured statement, the Chinese boats were surveying the seabed in the EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone], and yet they were quiet," Engel said in an interview.

"There is certainly an increasing level of concern, especially from several civil society organizations. There is a level of mistrust in China's intentions," said Kembara, who specializes in strategic and security studies and maritime affairs.

Suspected Chinese submarine drones have been found by fishermen in Indonesian waters three times in the past 18 months. The most recent find was in a maritime passage linking the South China Sea to Australia's northern city, Darwin, in December.

Anti-Chinese sentiment

Wedded to its nonaligned foreign policy and ASEAN-centered diplomacy, Jakarta is also desperate to avoid a repeat of past domestic outbursts of anti-Chinese sentiment.

"The government is trying to walk a delicate line. It wants to hold China to international standards, but it's trying not to antagonize it to the point of causing a ripple effect in Indonesia's social fabric, where negative sentiment could be bigger than we can contain," Kembara said.

"It would be worrying if the public starts [to channel] negative sentiment toward China because of our historical dealings in the past with the Chinese and how that would affect the social fabric."

"The government needs to use the right language, words which will not stoke nationalist sentiment," said Kembara. "There's a lot of homework to get the story straight, and we are trying to gauge what China's intentions are."

Engel said while many Indonesians "are extremely upset about the affront to Indonesian sovereignty and are "quite understandably saying China has to stop," Jakarta can't risk scolding China over its incursions for fear of taking sides.

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