Indonesia Turns to Europe for Arms

Upgrade in defense capability spreads across planet

At the time of the April 21 loss of a submarine in deep waters off Bali, Asia Sentinel noted a little-observed development – that Indonesia has been making significant moves to upgrade its defense capability in deals with the US, and at least in embryo with Japan and India.

Now, Europe has moved high on the list of defense suppliers as the country seeks to make it clear that it intends to defend its archipelagic waters and its Exclusive Economic Zone from foreigner threats – i.e. China, although at the same time it has been in a delicate dance to keep its lines open to Beijing through high-level agreements on implementation deals pertaining to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In a deal worth billions and spread over five years, Indonesia is to acquire eight frigates from Italy. Six will be new-build FREMM class vessels from the Italian yards of Fincantieri and two will be older Maestrale class vessels which will be refitted after being retired from the Italian navy. The deal includes ancillary equipment and systems and is part of a massive increase in planned defense spending over the next five and one for the first time focused on external defense and hence the navy.

The FREMM class vessels are highly regarded – the US itself has several on order from Fincantieri’s yard in the US and Fincantieri won the order against Japanese and German competition.

The focus on frigates is significant because they provide a very visible presence and are more effective than submarines in dealing with low and medium level intrusions into its waters, not least the area of what Indonesia deems to be the North Natuna sea but is partly within China’s self-proclaimed sea territory within its nine-dash line – a claim accepted by no one and flatly rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Submarines may be useful in protecting the key straits – Sunda, Makassar, Melaka etc. – which give the country such critical strategic importance. But for now, at least, Indonesia’s goal is mainly to protect its archipelagic waters rather than play a direct role in international strategic competition.

However, it is at the same time aware that cultivating defense links with a variety of middle powers is one way of raising the diplomatic cost to China (and any other interlopers) of trying to enforce its self-proclaimed ownership of Indonesia’s waters.

Significantly, the announcement of signing coincided with the G7 meeting held in the UK this week, of which Italy is a member along with Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The development shows some solidarity with the US over China. Korea, India, and Australia were guests at the conclave, which very much marked the return of the United States to international engagement.

So though it will never join the Quad of countries – US, Japan, India, Australia – aiming for a united front against Chinese expansionism, its sympathies have been clear from the various defense minister meetings with Quad members conducted by defense minister Prabowo Subianto, President Widodo’s former bitter rival for the presidency but who has now managed to secure a huge rolling increase in the defense budget.

Widodo has long believed in the importance of the sea and Prabowo, though an army man, clearly agrees and wants to make a lasting mark as defense minister – perhaps as a prelude for another attempt at the presidency.

The choice of a European country to build up the frigate fleet made sense in these terms. The Italian firm has a good naval construction record but needed a fuller order book so apparently could offer an attractive price. But the Jakarta-European Union link is useful for both parties at a time when the Europeans are looking for closer ties in Asia-Pacific as part of their own concerns about China’s international goals. Italy is attractive because it for the region it carries none of the colonial baggage associated with Britain, the Netherlands, and France.

Fincantieri is known as one of the leading surface warship builders in the world and is currently engaged in an aircraft carrier joint venture with Daewoo of Korea.

For sure, Indonesia still talks to others about arms sales, notably Russia, which wants to sell its Sukhoi fighters – although Jakarta may now prefer US planes. Nor is Indonesia looking for a fight with its major trading partner and infrastructure investor. Local ethnic Chinese money power also influences policy. Indonesia’s fundamental non-alignment, dating back to Sukarno and the Bandung Conference, will not change.

But China’s maritime actions over the past two years, its actions in Xinjiang, and now its ambiguous role in Myanmar have raised Indonesian consciousness even as it continues to benefit from investment – and supplies of Sinovac anti-Covid vaccine.

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