The regional tension between Indonesia and China was reaching a new stage. On December 1, 2021, some Chinese diplomats told Indonesia to halt the oil and gas exploration in Northern Natuna. Believing that the drilling was taking place in the Chinese territory, the Chinese authorities sent a protest letter towards the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). A source from Indonesian MOFA noted that the letter was threatening because it pushes the agenda of the Nine-Dashed Line—a Chinese unilateral claim of the South China Sea that crosses the Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) of more than five Southeast Asian Countries. According to The Diplomat (2021), the reply from the Indonesian MOFA emphasized the sovereign right of Indonesia, asserting that the drilling would not be stopped.
This diplomatic action further exacerbates the Chinese violations of the right of sovereignty of Indonesia. Until now, the Chinese vessels—mainly armed fishing boats called “maritime militia” and surveillance coast guard ships—are regularly entering Indonesia’s EEZ, reaching more than 1.000 according to the Indonesian Coordinating Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Investment. Some of them are also conducting IUU (illegal, unreported, and unregulated) fishing. The Indonesian government has responded both diplomatically and militarily to compel the Chinese out of Natuna Islands water, starting from delivering a strong protest by summoning the Chinese Ambassador in 2016 and 2019 to conducting a large-scale naval exercise. However, there are still no sign of further response from Chinese authorities to pull out its naval assets.
To address the Chinese’s lingering provocation, Indonesia must bolster its political and security leverage. As the lack of effectiveness of ASEAN centrality to dissuade the growing Chinese incursions and regional instability, Indonesia should develop its strategic autonomy to defend its sovereignty and keep the regional threats in check. On the other side, the naval power of Indonesia is still considered as ‘mediocre’ compared to middle regional power such Australia or Singapore. Indonesian Navy (TNI AL) vessels is ageing and lacking any capacity to project powers beyond its green water area, becoming a weak point on creating a solid deterrence effect against China.
Meanwhile, developing a partnership with AUKUS members bilaterally could be seen as a strategic decision since the mini-lateral forum has a solid framework for regional security partnership, especially on developing naval capability. Despite concerns stated by the Indonesian MOFA regarding its formation, Jakarta has already conducted bilateral approaches with AUKUS members. The two-plus-two meeting conducted between both Indonesian and Australian MOFA and Ministry of Defence in September 2021 underlining the commitment of both countries to deepen their security cooperation and thus, reinforce the commitment against China. Subsequently, Indonesian Ministry of Defense also secured a contract to procure the latest Arrowhead 140 design frigate from the United Kingdom, followed by a license agreement of technology transfer between Babcock and PT PAL to build the two frigates in Surabaya.
While advantageous and may greatly improve Indonesia’s leverage, a strategic partnership with AUKUS should not be taken for granted. Further relationship with AUKUS might be seen by Beijing as a ‘betrayal’, as it will concern that Indonesia has broken its neutrality by joining the Western military alliance. This situation will raise the Chinese negative view on Indonesia and subsequently may rupture China-Indonesia economic relations. Even with its frequent territorial incursions, China is still Indonesia’s most prominent trade partner and both nations have decided to cooperate on strategic infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Thus, Jakarta always sights to maintain a balanced relationship between China and the West with the principle of neutrality and free and active foreign policy.
Instead, Jakarta may consider a strategic partnership with France as a viable alternative. Feeling deceived upon the formation of AUKUS that terminated its joint submarine program with Australia, France is aggressively eyeing the Indo-Pacific for any regional partner. Previously, French authorities have been in talks with Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto over the procurement of Dassault Rafale. These 36 units of all-new jet fighters are expected to rearm the Indonesian Air Force that is in dire need of modernization. France itself is not a newcomer within Indo-Pacific geopolitical powerplay, as it possesses numerous overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific such as New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and French Indian Ocean Territories. As the growth of Chinese incursion, French Government is raising its attention on protecting those overseas territories by increasing naval deployment and military exercises with regional partners.
These may create momentum for Indonesia to develop a closer relationship with France. Several prospects are upfront. First of all, is the broader access towards state-of-art ‘Western-standard’ weaponry. It is necessary to modernize the Indonesian military, such as jet fighters, submarines, and anti-ship missiles technology. Previously, France has committed to transfer its military technology under a joint-venture program to numerous middle powers, such as India, Brazil, and Malaysia mean it may prospect to support the development of Indonesian defense industries. Secondly, the strategic partnership with France is considered as a third-way between two polar—China and the AUKUS—thus congruent with Jakarta’s foreign policy fundament of ‘rowing between two reefs.’ While may hedge itself from any risk of being dragged into great power rivalry, Indonesia will attain higher political leverage. France is also in a close partnership with India—a regional powerhouse and traditional hegemony on the Indian Ocean and over numerous Indian Ocean countries. By being closer to those states, it will open a further opportunity for Indonesia to project its soft-power in the Indian Ocean that is relatively stable and friendlier through Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
Amidst Indonesia’s geopolitical insecurity, the future of the Indonesia-France strategic relationship is on a positive track. Jakarta may oversee a more comprehensive approach by managing a two-plus-two meeting mechanism that brings together MOFA and the Ministry of Defense of both countries. This further relationship certainly could be auspicious for both parties—Indonesia will attain a more centralized and firm position as a middle power in the Indo-Pacific while maintain its balanced relationship with both AUKUS and China. Whereas, France could expand its influence and be a ‘balancer’ or a ‘third power’ to further stabilize the volatile Indo-Pacific region.