Indonesia Plays it Safe in US-China Conflict

No fuss raised with China over the discovery of underwater spy drones

In an effort to avoid worsening relations with Beijing, Indonesia is carefully downplaying the discovery of underwater drones strongly suspected of being operated by remote control from Chinese ships plying Indonesian waters.

Although a fisherman found the latest one, a torpedo-shaped object found to be a seaglider, near the Selayar Islands in South Sulawesi on December 26, the discovery wasn’t revealed to the public until early this month. The Indonesian Navy confirmed that the device, equipped with cameras and sensors, is used to detect ocean geography. Unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, are used by a number of countries for various purposes including surveillance, reconnaissance, and seabed mapping.

It was the third such device found in Indonesian waters. A similar one was previously found near the Masalembu Islands about 650 km west of the Selayar Islands and another was found in March 2019 in waters around the Riau Islands. The three islands are astride waters that are an important part of maritime routes stretching between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

The drones’ discovery has raised questions whether the Chinese government is secretly conducting underwater surveys of the route between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, information that could be very useful for its submarines passing through this area.

Although there has been no public mention, the US Navy is believed to have participated in detecting the drones. The US military has been performing a quiet, growing role in Indonesia as Washington seeks allies to counter China’s hegemony over the South China Sea. Competition between China and the United States has been exacerbated by various issues including trade, technology, the Covid-19 pandemic, US support for Taiwan and China's crackdown in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Both the US and China are intensifying their presence in the South China Sea and their relations with the littoral nations. Since 2015, the US has authorized the export of more than U$546 million in military sales to Indonesia including aircraft, missiles, firearms and electronics according to a November 30, 2020 State Department fact sheet. Although there is no mention, military intelligence sharing is almost certainly a part of that.

South Sulawesi Governor Nurdin Abdullah accused the drone of being used to spy on Indonesia, while military and defense researcher from Research and Operations on Technology & Society (ROOTS) Riefqi Muna said the discovery amounted to intrusion into state sovereignty. Several House of Representatives members urged the government to take a firm stance on China.

Jakarta and Beijing are often involved in tensions over different claims to ownership of Natuna-area waters in the South China Sea. China considers the area to be included in the so-called Nine-Dash Line, a line drawn unilaterally by China without going through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982. As for Indonesia, this area still included in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Yudo Margono acknowledged that the seaglider could be used in the defense and military industry, among others as an opening for submarines in the deep sea, but he did not want to rush to call it Chinese, and said that his agency will do an investigation.

The drones are similar to the Sea Wing UUV, developed by the Shenyang institute of automation at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and have been in use since at least 2014. CAS uses Sea Wings for oceanographic research with sensors capable of collecting data including seawater temperature, salinity, turbidity, and oxygen levels.

A military researcher who asked to remain nameless told Asia Sentinel that the exceptionally deep Sunda and Lombok straits are key chokepoints for submarines transiting between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The US is known to have maintained a sophisticated undersea surveillance system in the strait for decades and it must be assumed that China has done the same.

The source said the so-called 'glider' underwater drones are now standard equipment for advanced military powers seeking to reconnoiter routes for their own submarines, detect those of other powers or add to their data on marine geography, conditions and possibly natural resources.

"What is remarkable is that more incidents involving these drones do not occur, or at least reported," he said. It is also highly probable, he added, that the huge Chinese fishing fleets now active across the world's oceans also deploy drones, including for military purposes, as well as units likely launched by more conventional warships or submarines.

President Joko Widodo has on several occasions signaled that Indonesia does not want to be dragged too far in the twitchy relations between China and the United States, in accordance with the "free-and-active" principle adopted by Indonesia in international relations. Jokowi in an interview in February last year stated that Indonesia would prioritize national interests over supporting one party and underlined that relations with other countries must be based on the principle of mutual benefit.

For instance, Indonesian diplomats apparently declined to raise the issue of the drones last w week at a meeting in Jakarta between the Chinese Foreign Minister and his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi. Retno was reported to have only reminded China to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea

Indonesia has enjoyed cooperation with China in various fields in recent years in line with Jokowi's ambition to build inter-island connectivity and infrastructure development. Indonesia is a member of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious project initiated by China that aims to connect the Eurasian economy with infrastructure, trade, and investment. China is the second-largest investor in Indonesia after Singapore with a total investment value of US$3.5 billion.

China has invested in various mega projects including the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed train, a digital technology development center on Penyu Island in Bali, Industrial Estates in Karawang and Tangerang, as well as other collaborative projects in the fields of developing power plants, transportation, ports, 5G networks, sister-port, and the fishing industry.

Defense observers see the escalation of conflict between the United States and China over the South China Sea as an opportunity for Indonesia to acquire more weapons systems and play a role in conflict resolution.

"Indonesia should be pragmatic by accepting infrastructure and defense equipment assistance from the US to make China tremble because of various violations in Natuna," said Beni Sukadis, a consulting researcher for Marapi Advisory.

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