(Editor’s Note: The first part of this analysis showed how China has tried to impose its claims on the South China Sea, which has Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam did not take sitting down)
In late February, it became apparent that Indonesian defense officials were growing increasingly concerned about Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the implications this held for the island archipelago.
On February 27, the chief of Indonesia’s National Defense Force (TNI), General Moeldoko, announced that Indonesia would reinforce its military presence around the Natuna islands. According to Moeldoko, Since Natuna is strategically located, the increase of its forces at sea, on the ground, and in the air is necessary to anticipate any instability in the South China Sea and serve as an early warning system for Indonesia and the TNI.
The Moeldoko announcement carried special weight, because it came immediately after he returned from a visit to China where he reaffirmed Indonesia’s neutrality in maritime territorial disputes.
Indonesia has already completed considerable upgrading of its facilities at the Ranai Air Base on Riau Island, including the installation of integrated radar and runway and taxi lights. The air base currently houses Hawk 109/209 light fighters.
Indonesia plans to extend the runway and build new hangers to accommodate its Su-27 and Su-30 jet fighters as well as the more capable F-16 air superiority fighters.
Indonesia is in the process of acquiring three Type-209 conventional submarines from South Korea, and two Dutch Sigma frigates.
On March 12, Air Commodore Fahru Zaini, assigned to the defense strategy unit of the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs in Indonesia, revealed that China’s inclusion of part of the Natuna islands within its nine-dash line claims to the South China Sea affected “the Unitary State of Indonesia.”
In late March, Indonesia hosted the inaugural Komodo Multilateral Naval Exercise involving 17 countries including Association of Southeast Asian (Asean) members and dialogue partners. The Komodo exercises will take place in the waters around Riau province, including Natuna.
Commodore Amarullah Octavian, director of the joint maritime exercise, was unusually blunt in discussing Indonesia’s political agenda behind the Komodo Exercise. On March 28, in remarks to a planning meeting reported in the Indonesian press, Amarullah was quoted as stating: “The exercise will focus on naval capabilities in disaster relief, but we will also pay attention to the aggressive stance of the Chinese government by entering the Natuna area. We want to explain that our laws stipulate that Natuna is part of Indonesia.”
Amarullah also stated that the Indonesia Navy would distribute exercise maps clearly indicating that Natuna island fell within Indonesia’s national boundaries.
“Therefore,” he argued, “diplomatically all countries have recognized all Indonesian borders.”
Meanwhile, on March 16, in the midst of deteriorating relations with China, President Benigno Aquino 3rd announced in a speech during graduation ceremonies at the Philippines Military Academy new arms procurements totaling $670 million.
The funds will be used to purchase 12 South Korean FA-50 dual-role fighter-trainer jets ($420 million), eight Canadian Bell 412 combat utility helicopters ($100 million), and two anti-submarine helicopters. The new fighters will revive the air combat wing disbanded several years ago. The FA-50s are expected to enter service next year.
The Philippines, which is already committed to spend $890 million by 2017, has put out tenders for two frigates. It is negotiating with France for the acquisition of five patrol boats and with South Korea for several multi-role strategic sea lift vessels.
On March 24, the Vietnamese newspaper Thanh Nien reported that Vietnam had requested the Chinese government to investigate allegations of assaults on Vietnamese fishermen by paramilitary state vessels in the waters surrounding the Paracel Islands. Further, Vietnam demanded compensation for the loss of equipment and fish.
In addition, Vietnam’s acquisition of conventional Kilo (Varshavyanka-class) submarines picked up the pace in March. On March 2, Russia handed over Vietnam’s third submarine, HQ 184 Hai Phong, at the Admiralty Shipyards in St. Petersburg. It is currently undergoing sea trials.
At the end of the month, Vietnam’s second submarine, HQ 183 Ho Chi Minh City, was delivered to Cam Ranh Bay, while Vietnam’s fourth submarine, HQ 185 Khanh Hoa, was launched at official ceremonies in St. Petersburg.
On April 4, Vietnam held an official flag raising ceremony at Cam Ranh Bay for the first two submarines.
Indonesia, like Malaysia, has been circumspect in responding to Chinese challenges to its sovereign jurisdiction in its maritime domain. Heretofore unpublicized reports of encounters between Chinese paramilitary ships and Indonesian vessels reveal that the “softly, softly” approach adopted by Jakarta has not resulted in a reduction of Chinese-initiated confrontations.
However, China’s increasing assertiveness this year—announcing the right to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea, imposing a fishing ban on nearly 60 percent of the South China Sea, symbolic claims to sovereignty over James Shoal off Malaysia, blocking efforts by the Philippines to resupply Marines at Second Thomas Shoal, and diplomatic heavy-handedness in response to the Philippines’ submission of its memorial to the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal —coupled with less publicized encounters with Chinese paramilitary ships, explains why the Philippines, Vietnam, and, most remarkably, Indonesia are pushing back.