Expanding Chinese maritime power in the Pacific and Indian oceans has caused a fundamental rethink of Australia’s relationship with India and Indonesia, which analysts say will foster closer military ties and lead to increased naval deployments.
However, all three countries are going to go to the polls in the first half of this year, Australia on May 18, India’s month-long poll will end on May 29 while Indonesian President Joko Widodo won a second term in April, though his new government will not be sworn in until October 1.
Mohan Malik, of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies, said new governments would be tested by two strategies; a trilateral relationship between Australia, India and Indonesia, or the Indo-Pacific strategy which also includes the US and Japan.
He said Australia and Indonesia were the “quintessential Indian-Pacific powers”
“Indonesia wants to be a global maritime fulcrum,”Malik added.
“How it can play that role is open to question, it’s a lofty concept.”
Each strategy would require increased military spending on both sides of Australia, joint-patrols, and more naval exercises like the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 19; an Australian-led deployment with India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore.
Australia has already signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Indonesia, which is expected to ink a similar pact with India later this year, after announcing their joint-development of a 40 metre-deep port at Sabang on the northern tip of Sumatra.
India is also bolstering its eastward reach across the Andaman Sea and expanding military facilities at Port Blair, including new airstrips.
“That sends a very strong signal to China,” Malik said.
Beijing deeply upset Jakarta by claiming Natuna Island – long recognised as Indonesian sovereign territory -and has ignored its obligations under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea and lost claims on islands held by The Philippines in an international tribunal.
Its claim over Natuna Island prompted Jakarta to rename the southern maritime zone in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea.
“They do see the South China Sea as potentially quite a dangerous flashpoint,” Don Greenlees, a senior fellow with the Australian National University, said.
“They’ve got their territorial problems there with China, north of Natuna, and so it’s a bit of balancing act and I think it’s the same balancing act, frankly, that everybody’s trying to grapple with,” he said.
Through its Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese companies invested and lent heavily to countries that can ill-afford to repay, then seized their assets. Sri Lanka lost control Hambantota Port and Australia had to outbid China for control of a debt-trapped port in Fiji.
Both ports are strategically important.
Malik said the trilateral relationship was the easier option as it was underpinned by three regional powers with common interests and not tainted by US involvement, or its trade war with China, an important issue with the Indo-Pac strategy and for the prospects of expanding it.
“Other countries are torn between China and the US,” he said.
Smaller regional countries fear risking Chinese investments if they side with Indo-Pac, widely seen as a maritime policy designed to counter Beijing’s maritime ambitions, and that includes Indonesia, which is reluctant to offer support for the strategy publicly.
“What is very off is the security orientation or connotation that this concept has acquired under the US-Trump administration; free and open Indo-Pacific, which is seen as putting countries on notice in terms of choosing sides,” Malik said.
The 10 countries that make-up the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) are also divided over how to handle China. Cambodia, a Chinese economic dependent, has backed Beijing’s maritime claims where disputes have also festered with Vietnam, The Philippines, and Malaysia.
Wary of falling into another debt trap, newly elected Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad even cancelled $A25.13 billion worth of Chinese projects.
But Brunei, also a claimant, and landlocked Laos, which has a say in the ASEAN diplomatic arena, are beneficiaries of Chinese largesse and have been notably quiet on the hotly disputed waterways that extend north to Japan, the two Koreas and Taiwan.
Greenlees said a balance had to be struck “between the economic opportunity presented by China and minimising the risk that might go along with that.”
“It’s not an easy one for anybody to resolve,” he said. “And it’s difficult to find the right formulae when nobody completely knows what China is going to do. It’s quite possible China hasn’t decided how far it’s going to push things.”
In Australia it’s an issue that both sides of the political divide have been criticised for ignoring during the election campaign, but Greenlees added Indonesia was quietly trying to pursue “the same strategy Australia is trying to engineer”.
His sentiments were backed by Kevin O’Rourke, an analyst with PT Reformasi Info Sastra which analyses politics and policies in Indonesia.
He said the Indonesian economy would remain Jokowi’s top priority and that he was reluctant to risk potential Chinese investment.
But foreign minister Retno Marsudi and her bureaucracy have been solid proponents “of efforts to discuss the Indo-Pacific strategy”.
“That inclination for an Indo-Pacific strategy is going to continue.”