Analysis Why Indonesia Should Embrace AUKUS

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Why Indonesia Should Embrace AUKUS​

Friday, October 22, 2021, 22:23 WIB
Reasons Why Indonesia Should Embrace AUKUS


Photo Credit: Twitter/SecBlinken
WE Online, Jakarta -

The announcement of AUKUS —a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States — sparked concerns over increasing competition across the Indo-Pacific.
Canberra is now seeking to dispel suspicion in Indonesia, a key strategic partner, of its commitment to regional peace. However, Indonesia must look at AUKUS introspectively and be aware of the opportunities it presents.

Read also: Minister of the British Armed Forces: Controversy over the AUKUS Pact is overblown

According to Arrizal Jaknanihan, who wrote his opinion on the East Asia Forum website , AUKUS reveals the symptoms of ASEAN's lingering doubts and Indonesia's inability to resolve conflicts in the region, and has generated mixed responses from ASEAN members.
Indonesia and Malaysia expressed deep concern over the potential arms race following plans to build eight nuclear-powered submarines in Australia. Singapore and the Philippines are more conscious in their responses, stating that partnerships can contribute to regional stability.
The inability to create a unanimous signal to Jakarta that ASEAN, a hallmark of Indonesia's diplomacy, is hardly a united front when it comes to collective challenges. Vietnam and the other members' silence, in this context, is deafening.

Indonesia's fear is natural. Southeast Asia is at the direct frontier of the geopolitical impact of AUKUS. Any conflict with China will put Indonesia in the middle. Worse still, regional tensions risk leaving Indonesia as a 'strategic spectator'.
But AUKUS has to be put into perspective. This initiative needs to be treated as a minilateral option, rather than a deliberate arrangement to throw off ASEAN's centrality. This is a logical consequence of ASEAN's inability to bridge competing parties in the region.
As Indonesia's former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa put it, 'AUKUS is a reminder to ASEAN of the cost of its indecision and indecision to a complex and rapidly evolving geopolitical environment'.
At the heart of Indonesia's 'free and active' foreign policy is strategic autonomy—the number of movements that Jakarta has. This cannot be achieved by relying solely on ASEAN, whose mechanisms are increasingly imprecise to maintain friendship among its partners.

While expressing concern is necessary to defuse tensions, personally Jakarta's security sector may be relieved that AUKUS exerts regional influence over China. Not by supplying cutting-edge military technology alone, but from a commitment voiced by external powers to regional security.

Indonesia's statement carefully avoided mentioning AUKUS by name and was articulated in a rather warm tone — the default response from the country that has the highest stake in ASEAN.

This signifies concern, but not hostility towards Canberra. Behind the neutrality of the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, domestic opinion is still far from unified. One member of parliament stated that there is support for the government to support AUKUS and oppose the latest Chinese attack in Natuna.

While Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein expressed concern over regional destabilization, his Indonesian counterpart Prabowo Subianto has yet to issue an official statement on AUKUS.

The cross-purposes between the ministries of foreign affairs and defense illustrate Indonesia's nuanced stance. Indonesia is trying to maintain trust by convincing Beijing of its neutrality.

While such concerns need to be expressed openly, they hide a deeper fear of being sidelined if similar moves occur in the future.

Indonesia's response to regional conflicts has long been sluggish, encapsulated in statements such as 'very concerned' and 'watch carefully' with no concrete action. Indonesia's fear of conflict in the backyard is an understatement in this context — the threat has crossed Indonesia's pages several times, often without warning.

Right after voicing its concerns, Indonesia is seeing another Chinese attack on its exclusive economic zone, and its longest. The attack by a Chinese survey ship, two coast guard vessels and a destroyer in the North Natuna Sea has been going on for more than three weeks.

Ironically, the incident occurred after Beijing summoned the Indonesian ambassador to express its displeasure with AUKUS. The latest attack could repeat China's cycle of territorial violations in 2016 and 2019, which Indonesia failed to properly address.

Jakarta really needs to guard against potential threats around the area. While ASEAN arrangements are still struggling to overcome their impasse, extra-ASEAN arrangements can help, including from Australia.

However, the Jakarta-Canberra security relationship could reach new heights during this Indo-Pacific quagmire after the two countries agreed to renew the Australia-Indonesia Defense Cooperation Arrangement.

Indonesia is in dire need of modernizing its weapons. After the crash of KRI Nanggala-402 in April, it was evident that the country faced a looming threat from its outdated military technology.

To achieve the Minimum Essential Forces target, the extra-ASEAN arrangement is a viable option. Indonesia has already begun to address this problem, although progress may be gradual.

On September 17, Prabowo and the British Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace signed a license to manufacture two Arrowhead-140 frigates. A week earlier, Indonesia and Australia had their seventh 7+2 meeting to improve their defense ties.

In bilateral relations, AUKUS does not change Indonesia's relationship with its partners, including AUKUS countries.

Affirming ASEAN's centrality is one thing, but addressing the real problem is another. Future ASEAN strategies should begin to recognize AUKUS, Quad and other similar arrangements as useful assets that complement ASEAN institutions and centrality.

Indonesia should place more emphasis on the 'active' part of the 'free and active' principle. And to be active, Indonesia needs more strategies.

ASEAN countries have lost much of their independence by translating neutrality as inaction. Managed with care, AUKUS and its forthcoming minilateral arrangement could fill this gap.

 

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