Indonesia and Australia discuss joint naval patrols in the South China Sea

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop yesterday confirmed that Australia and Indonesia are considering joint naval patrols in the South China Sea. Her comments followed a four-day visit to Indonesia last week, during which she met with Indonesian President Joko Widido and senior Indonesian ministers.

Speaking to Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio, Bishop sought to portray the mooted patrols as a routine part of the Australian navy’s operations. “This is a regular part of what our navy does,” she said. “This is part of our engagement in the region and this is in accordance with Australia’s right of freedom of navigation, including in the South China Sea.”

Such military exercises would be anything but routine, however. Indonesian naval vessels have already been involved in clashes with Chinese fishing trawlers allegedly fishing illegally inside the 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. Sharp diplomatic exchanges between Jakarta and Beijing resulted.

While China does not dispute Indonesian sovereignty over the Natunas, its extensive maritime claims in the South China Sea intersect with the EEZ around the island group. Joint Australian-Indonesian naval exercises in the area risk an incident involving Chinese fishing boats that could draw in the Chinese coast guard or navy.

Following a clash in June, President Widodo travelled to the Natunas to underscore Indonesia’s determination to assert its maritime claims. The Indonesian armed forces has been expanding its presence on the Natunas and last month staged its largest-ever air force exercise in the area, involving more than 2,000 personnel with fighter jets.

An Indonesian defence ministry spokesman told the media that no agreement had been reached to conduct joint naval patrols with Australia. However, the issue was clearly discussed at the annual “2+2” talks involving Bishop and Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne with their Indonesian counterparts last Thursday.

Their joint communiqué emphasised “the importance of maritime security.” It noted that the two countries were “natural maritime partners” and would take “practical steps to deepen and broaden bilateral maritime engagement.” The Indonesian and Australian navies have already carried out joint patrols in the Timor Sea, between the two countries.

The communiqué underlined “the importance of maintaining peace, security and stability, freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea.” It emphasised the “importance of non-militarisation” and backed Indonesia’s push for a code of conduct between the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China in the South China Sea.

These diplomatic code-words are in line with the Obama administration’s aggressive intervention over the past six years in longstanding territorial disputes between China and its South East Asian neighbours. Washington has repeatedly criticised China’s “militarisation” of its atolls and “expansionism” in the South China Sea. The US navy last month conducted a fourth “freedom of navigation operation” that provocatively challenged Chinese maritime claims in the area.

The Australian government has been under intense pressure from Washington to authorise its own “freedom of navigation” incursion into Chinese-claimed territory—a move that Canberra has so far resisted amid deep divisions in the Australian political establishment. Sections of the ruling elite are fearful of the economic impact of a deterioration of relations with China, Australia’s biggest trading partner.

The communiqué referred to the need to resolve disputes in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled in favour of a US-backed Philippine challenge under UNCLOS to Chinese maritime claims. The subsequent tilt by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte toward Beijing has blunted Washington’s ability to exploit the PCA ruling to ramp up the pressure on Beijing over the South China Sea.

After discussions with Bishop, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said last Wednesday she would seek clarification from the Philippines—in other words, to add to US pressure on Duterte to fall back into line. Duterte has called for an end to joint US-Philippine military exercises and the removal of US troops from the southern island of Mindanao.

In her remarks yesterday, Bishop suggested that the proposal for joint patrols came from Indonesia. Whether that is the case or not, closer defence ties and strategic collaboration between Australia and Indonesia, along with joint operations in the South China Sea, are fully in line with US efforts to build a web of alliances and strategic partnerships as part of its “pivot to Asia” directed against China.

A report appraising the US-Australian alliance published last month by the US Studies Centre at Sydney University included among its recommendations that Canberra “midwife closer US-Indonesia ties.” Written by Richard Fontaine, a visiting fellow and prominent figure in the US foreign policy establishment, the report suggested that closer ties should be forged also with other countries, including India, to boost maritime surveillance and operations in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

Bishop clearly had a brief—not only to strengthen Indonesian-Australian military ties but to draw Indonesia more fully into the US “pivot” against China. Echoing the reaction in Canberra and Washington to the proposal for joint Australian-Indonesian naval patrols, analyst Euan Graham from the Sydney-based Lowy Institute told the Financial Times: “This is a very significant development. It sends a message to Beijing that not all South East Asian countries are kowtowing to it over the South China Sea.”

The communiqué from last week’s talks in Bali also underscored closer Indonesian-Australian collaboration in regional forums such as ASEAN summits and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), which also took place last week in Bali. IORA was formed in 1997, comprising countries from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. It is assuming growing significance as the Indian Ocean becomes the focus of rising geo-political rivalry.

Closer Indonesian-Australian ties are underscored by the planned trip by President Widodo to Australia next week, during which he is slated to address the Australian parliament.