Explain Indonesia’s unbalanced treatment towards its two “strategic partners” – Australia and China
Proudly non-aligned, Indonesia never loses an opportunity to reiterate that it does not intend to choose sides in the evolving competition of the great powers of the Indo-Pacific.
But that doesn’t mean he always treats both sides fairly.
Take the issue of the regional arms race, about which Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi is clearly “deeply concerned” and whose catalyst, it seems, was Canberra’s announcement that the Australia will acquire eight nuclear submarines as part of the AUKUS pact with the United Kingdom and the United States over the next decades.
The Indonesian government revealed its dismay in an official statement. She felt worried enough to remind Australia, one of only two countries with which Indonesia has a comprehensive strategic partnership, of its non-proliferation and other international legal obligations and commitments to preserve the peace. in accordance with the ASEAN Friendship and Cooperation Treaty.
Indonesian lawmakers were quick to pile up, asserting the argument that future Australian submarines threatened the peace of the neighborhood and demanding that Indonesia confront Australia on the issue. Indonesian media commentators have also tended to jump on this censorship train.
The issue has now generated enough political energy to prompt the Indonesian Foreign Ministry (Kemlu) to consider advocating for an amendment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) presumably aimed at preventing non-nuclear-weapon states, including Australia, to acquire submarines, which the NPT is not currently blocking.
From Jakarta’s perspective, the problem does not appear to be that Canberra intends to violate the letter of international arms treaties, but rather that it intends not to “respect the spirit” of those. -this.
One area of concern is likely the threat of diversion; that is, the military grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) used to fuel British, American and other nuclear submarines could end up in a nuclear weapons program.
Few Indonesians seem to believe that Australia would have such nefarious designs. The fear appears to be more that Australia’s acquisition of submarines of this specification would set a precedent that others less deserving of the benefit of such doubt would follow.
Another concern appears to relate to the implications of Australia’s acquisition for issues such as the proposed Fissile Material Ban Treaty (FMCT) if, as seems most likely, Australia builds submarines. HEU fed from slowly declining US stocks.
The impact of eight submarine reactors on American stocks might not be profound, but it would not be negligible. Unless the United States turns to low enriched uranium (LEU) – which, ironically, is what France uses in submarines that Australia originally sought to build a conventional version of – or towards non-military LEU + fuel for its future generations of warships. , even fueling eight new ships would accelerate Washington’s need to produce a new stock of HEU.
Such an outcome would not only run counter to Indonesia’s efforts to codify an FMCT. This would run counter to the stated interest of the United States in having such an instrument. Australia has also played an active role in the FMCT negotiations and remains formally committed to developing a workable regime to “reduce the amount of fissile material available for nuclear weapons”.
It would be tempting to dismiss the Jakarta declaration and subsequent comments on at least two grounds.
First, as measured as it is, a formal public statement implying that Australia must be reminded to stay true to its non-proliferation obligations is excessive if the only potential violation is in the spirit rather than a actual violation.
Indonesia has rightly criticized Australian politicians for megaphone diplomacy in the past. In this case, Indonesia’s message was hardly sent out, but it was nonetheless a performative gesture to a national constituency ready to hear its call.
The administration could easily have raised its concerns through the closed diplomatic channels it normally insists Australia use when it has concerns with Indonesia. Given that Australia’s non-proliferation credentials are beyond reproach, and she has worked diligently and in good faith on arms control instruments for decades, she has certainly earned enough credit for Jakarta to have approached the matter in this way and with this in mind.
The second reason is the lack of impartiality.
Jakarta’s concerns about Australia’s long-term military aspirations obviously do not also extend to the actual behavior of the other country with which Indonesia has a comprehensive strategic partnership: China.
Any observer scanning the horizon over Jakarta is more likely to spot a Chinese hypersonic missile than a comment from the Indonesian government that such a weapons system could pose an obvious danger and too present for its hopes that the region will not. not caught up in an arms race.
Jakarta’s official statements (or lack thereof) instead suggest that it considers Australia’s hypothetical nuclear-powered submarines intended to carry only conventional weapons as posing somehow a risk. more serious to regional peace and rules-based international order than a new class of missiles designed to carry a nuclear warhead out of China.
Indonesia might rightly retort that China, as a nuclear-weapon state under the NPT, has the right to arm itself with nuclear weapons – a prerogative that Australia, a signatory in NPT rule, neither does nor seeks to obtain illicitly.
This could indicate that the United States is also working on hypersonic missiles and that Australia is a willing partner in this endeavor.
Thus, Jakarta can rightly argue that it would be inappropriate for it to “carefully rate” China’s actions or to remind it to abide by its legal obligations, since its actions do not violate any of them.
But for a country apparently so concerned about Australia’s adherence to the spirit of arms control regimes, its silence on China’s military technology and modernization activities suggests little consistency.
This is all the more true given Indonesia’s criticism of NPT nuclear-weapon states for failing to meet their obligations to move towards disarmament, which it has historically articulated in the name of the non-aligned movement in UN bodies such as the Conference on Disarmament.
She would therefore be well aware that China is the only state with NPT nuclear weapons that increases its nuclear arsenal, which is surely a real breach in the mind, and not just a possible one.
Nothing reflects this distinction better than the reaction of the Indonesian Minister for the Coordination of Maritime Affairs and Investments, Luhut Pandjaitan, to a contemporary issue of Kemlu’s AUKUS declaration.
Responding to questions about why Indonesia has not responded publicly to China’s apparent hydrographic surveys of the seabed in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone near the Natuna Islands, Luhut said, “We don’t think so. not have any problems with China “.
“It’s like with your siblings,” he said. “Sometimes you have problems but don’t make a big deal out of it.”
That Luhut considers the blatant and continuing violation of Indonesia’s sovereignty by China as legitimized by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – another instrument, incidentally, to which Jakarta felt compelled to refer in its statement on Australian submarines – a matter so small that it ensures that no official public response is worthy of mention.
One can only speculate as to why Indonesia’s most powerful person sees it this way.
Indonesia has long repudiated China’s claims based on nine dashes in the South China Sea as incongruent with UNCLOS. Frightened by China’s previous actions near the Natunas, more recently he cited the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling in a verbal note at the UN contradicting China’s claims. He has worked hard within ASEAN to resist China’s efforts to bilateralize the South China Sea problem and to promote a just solution based on UNCLOS.
In addition, Indonesia’s accelerated efforts to modernize its military, especially its air and sea assets, as well as its defense cooperation with the United States, are no less a response to China’s intimidation. approaches north of Indonesia than those of Australia.
So, to say that Indonesia has not been balanced in its official response to the most recent Australian and Chinese actions does not mean that it has taken an intentional stance on the side of China and against the United States and its allies. .
But at the same time, it is difficult to avoid concluding that when it comes to comprehensive strategic partners, in Jakarta’s eyes, one is more equal than the other; and that for all arguments about norms and “the spirit”, the underlying explanation for the difference is realpolitik.
Jakarta knows it can get away with it safely by casting veiled slander on Australia’s behavior as an international citizen in a way it cannot with its other close strategic partner.
Yet we must not allow these inconsistencies on Jakarta’s part to prevent us from seriously addressing its concerns, which, while exaggerated and magnified by their transmission, are not theoretically invalid.
Indeed, it would be prudent for Canberra to do everything possible to appease them. It should make such a necessity a virtue by taking sensible steps (perhaps like those proposed by experts in the field) that would practically reaffirm Australia’s non-proliferation commitments.
And it should do so in an open and cooperative manner, in the spirit of a close strategic partner.