United States (US) looks to improve defense cooperation with Indonesia, especially related to security stability in the Indo-Pacific region and the resolution of the South China Sea conflict - Photo by Reuters

JAKARTA (TheInsiderStories) – United States (US) looks to improve defense cooperation with Indonesia, especially related to security stability in the Indo-Pacific region and the resolution of the South China Sea conflict. This was raised after acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan met his counterpart Ryamizard Ryacudu in Jakarta today (05/30).

The meeting comes amid increasing tensions between US and China. Recently, Indonesia has clashed with China over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands, detaining Chinese fishermen and expanding its military presence in the area in recent years.

“This is my first stop in Indo-Pacific and it was a very productive and encouraging visit. The primary purpose of this stop is to really forge a relationship between the minister and I but there were also work to be done,” said Shanahan after the meeting.

In 2017, Indonesia renamed the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea the North Natuna Sea, a change seen as a significant act of resistance to China’ territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

“In this case, Indonesia also support the realization of the Indo-Pacific region which has a principle of openness, transparency, inclusiveness, the centrality of ASEAN, and respect for international law,” said both parties in a joint statement.

Furthermore, they conveyed that Indonesia support the settlement of the South China Sea conflict peacefully and respects the full diplomatic process and legal process in accordance with international law, specifically referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982.

Both ministries “support the possibility of increased information sharing and exchange of views on an assessment of regional threats by using ASEAN Our Eyes as the platform for strategic information exchange among the ASEAN member States.”

Indonesia and five other Southeast Asian nations launched the “Our Eyes” intelligence pact last year aimed to combating Islamist militants and improving co-operation on security threats.

Indonesia, as the world’ largest Moslem-majority country, has in recent years struggled to contain a resurgence in home-grown radicalism inspired in part by the Middle Eastern militant group Islamic State.

By the beginning of this century, US – Indonesia military relations had become genuinely warm. Counterterrorist cooperation was substantial and effective. Congressionally imposed sanctions on the Indonesian military that dated back to severe human rights abuses at the end of the Suharto regime were being whittled away.

It remained an open question, however, whether security relations between the two countries and between their military establishments could move beyond targeted areas of cooperation (counterterrorism, education) to a true strategic partnership.

In recent months, an affirmative answer to that question seems to be taking shape. That is one way to read the results of Thursday Shanahan’ visit. That visit took place against the backdrop of aggressive Chinese activities (naval deployments, seizure of atolls, island building and fortification) designed to provide China with effective control over as much of the South China Sea as possible.

China’ putative maritime boundary encroaches on a 200-mile exclusive economic zone that extends out from Indonesia’s Natuna Islands into the South China Sea. That zone is Indonesia’s under the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China has claimed the right to send its fishing fleets into those waters. Over the last two to three years there have been numerous clashes between Chinese fishing boats, backed by maritime police, with Indonesian patrol craft.

For the US, China’ ambitions in the South China Sea constitute a direct challenge to the long-established American military presence in the region. As the world’s established superpower faces off against Asia’s rising and rival superpower, the stakes could hardly be higher.

If the US is to maintain its maritime position in the face of China’ fierce ambitions and rapidly growing capabilities, it will almost certainly require active support from Indonesia. If Indonesia is to successfully defend its own maritime interests, it will surely require substantial American support. It is a very different geopolitical landscape than either country has faced over the last six decades.

The two countries also aimed to conduct underwater surveys to ensure that the wrecks of World War Two warships in Indonesian waters are left undisturbed. There have been reports of looting of sunken ships by marine salvagers.

So, the future direction of US – Indonesian relations is clear: deeper maritime cooperation aimed at forging a system of strong sovereign nations that contribute to a free and open Indo- Asian – Pacific commons.

Written by Lexy Nantu, Email: lexy@theinsiderstories.com