Indonesia Mulls Drones in Response to China's Maritime Flexing

  • Government needs to `project power' around Natuna Islands
  • Reports say U.S. may challenge China's South China Sea claims

Indonesia is considering using drones and submarines to strengthen its grip over the gas-rich waters around the Natuna Islands in response to China’s growing military presence in the South China Sea.

These comments by Indonesia’s security chief Luhut Panjaitan in an opinion piece Wednesday in the Kompas newspaper represent some of the most direct yet by the nation over China’s claims in the water. They highlight unease in the government even as it maintains it is not a party to regional disputes over the waters.

“Only a few people were predicting the imaginary nine-dash line raised by China since 2009 would have a strong military and political affect,” wrote Panjaitan, the coordinating minster for security, politics and law. “This is on the back of the speedy economic development which automatically has given China a large military budget. Such a massive military spending has enabled the Chinese armed forces to have a presence in the South China Sea that is worrying the United States.”

Defense Posture

Panjaitan, a confidant to President Joko Widodo and a former general, said Indonesia needed to realign its defense posture with the “projected threats” from those dynamics as well as those posed by a small band of Islamic State followers in the east of the country.

He said the country’s military hardware procurement program had to “answer the question of how we can project our power in the Natuna archipelago” perhaps by strengthening its airbase there, putting a drone squadron on one of the islands or purchasing a Kilo-class submarine. 

“This is a sign Luhut is being more cautious about China” and its intentions, said Tirta Mursitama, a professor of international relations at Binus University in Jakarta. “It also gives a domestic message that although China is behind a lot of the investment, we are guarding our sovereignty. Let’s see whether other people in the military follow his ideas.”

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, based on a so-called nine dash line for which it won’t give precise coordinates. In passports issued in 2012, China’s line encroaches on the exclusive economic zone that Indonesia derives from the Natuna Islands. Indonesia hasn’t recognized the claim.

U.S. Warships

Panjaitan’s comments come amid reports the U.S. is considering sailing warships inside the 12 nautical-mile zones that China claims as territory around some of the islands it has reclaimed in the Spratly Islands to the north of the Natuna Islands.

The U.S., which wants to protect freedom of navigation in the waters, has vowed to fly or sail wherever international law allows. Until now, it has avoided transiting within the zone of China’s claimed islands, even though some were submerged at high tide before it began its reclamation activities, meaning they don’t generate a 12-mile zone under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Obama administration is heavily leaning toward using a show of military might after failing to get China to end the island building and construction of military outposts when President Xi Jinping visited Washington last month, Foreign Policy magazine reported Oct. 2.

Mistaken Signal

Failing to sail or fly within the zones may send a mistaken signal that Washington tacitly accepts Beijing’s far-reaching territorial claims, Foreign Policy reported.

“There is a spectrum of potential responses” from China, said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “A verbal warning at one end, to the use of warships at the other. In the middle Chinese coast guard ships may challenge U.S. navy ships.”

A clash between coast guard ships and U.S. naval vessels would be more difficult for the U.S. because it would feed into China’s narrative that America is bullying China, Storey said. “They would spin it as: ‘Here is the United States, which is the source of all problems in the South China Sea, bullying our civilian coast guard vessels in an area where we have legitimate jurisdictional rights.”’

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