Explaining Indonesia’s lopsided treatment of its two ‘strategic partners’—Australia and China
29 Oct 2021|

Proudly non-aligned, Indonesia never loses an opportunity to reiterate that it has no intention of choosing sides in the Indo-Pacific’s evolving great-power contest.

But that doesn’t mean it always treats both sides equitably.

Take the question of the regional arms race, about which Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, is evidently ‘deeply concerned’ and of which, it seems, the catalyst was Canberra’s announcement that Australia will acquire eight nuclear-powered submarines through the AUKUS pact with the United Kingdom and the United States over the coming decades.

The Indonesian government revealed its consternation in an official statement. It felt sufficiently disquieted 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 its commitments to preserving peace in line with ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

Indonesian legislators were quick to pile on, affirming the argument that Australia’s prospective submarines threatened the neighbourhood’s peace and demanding that Indonesia confront Australia over the issue. Indonesian media commentators also tended to jump on this censorious bandwagon.

The issue has now generated enough political energy to drive Indonesia’s foreign ministry (Kemlu) to consider advocating a change to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) presumably aimed at preventing non-nuclear-weapon states, including Australia, from acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, which the NPT currently doesn’t block.

From Jakarta’s perspective, the problem appears not to be that Canberra is intent on breaching the letter of international arms treaties, but rather that it intends not to ‘abide by the spirit’ of them.

One area of concern is presumably the threat of diversion; that is, that the weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) used to fuel British, American and other nuclear submarines might end up in a nuclear weapons program.

Few Indonesians seem to believe that Australia would have such nefarious designs. The fear seems 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 seems to relate to the implications of Australia’s acquisition for such issues as the proposed fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) if, as looks most likely, Australia builds submarines powered by HEU from the US’s slowly shrinking stockpile.

The impact of eight submarine reactors on US stocks might not be profound but it wouldn’t be negligible. Unless the US shifts to lowly enriched uranium (LEU)—which, ironically, is what France uses in the submarines of which Australia originally sought to build a conventional version—or to non-weapons-grade LEU+ fuel for its future generations of naval vessels, fuelling even eight new boats would accelerate the need for Washington to produce a new stock of HEU.

Such an outcome would not only fly in the face of Indonesia’s efforts to codify an FMCT. It would run counter to the US’s own stated interest in having such an instrument. Australia, too, has been an active player in negotiations on the FMCT, and officially remains committed to developing a viable regime to ‘reduce the amount of fissile material available for nuclear weapons’.

It would be tempting to dismiss Jakarta’s statement and subsequent comments on at least two grounds.

First, no matter how measured it might be, an official public statement implying that Australia needs to be reminded about keeping true to its non-proliferation obligations is excessive if the only prospective violation is in spirit rather than an actual breach.

Indonesia has rightly criticised Australian politicians for megaphone diplomacy in the past. In this case, Indonesia’s message was hardly blared out, but it was no less a performative gesture directed at a domestic constituency primed to hear its call.

The administration could easily have raised its worries through the closed diplomatic channels it normally insists Australia use when it has concerns with Indonesia. Given that Australia’s non-proliferation credentials are impeccable and that it has worked assiduously and in good faith on arms control instruments for decades, it has surely earned enough credit for Jakarta to have broached the matter in this way and spirit.

The second ground is the lack of evenhandedness.

Jakarta’s preoccupations with Australia’s long-term military aspirations evidently don’t equally extend to the actual behaviour 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 weapon system might constitute a clear and all too present danger to its hopes that the region won’t be caught up in an arms race.

Jakarta’s official statements (or lack thereof) instead suggest that it sees hypothetical Australian nuclear-powered submarines intended to carry only conventional weapons as somehow posing a more serious risk to regional peace and the international rules-based order than a new class of missile designed to carry a nuclear warhead out of China.

Indonesia could rightly counter that China, as a nuclear-weapon state under the NPT, has a right to arm itself with nuclear weapons—a prerogative that Australia, an NPT signatory in good standing, neither has nor seeks to achieve illicitly.

It could point to the fact that the US is also working on hypersonic missiles and that Australia is a willing partner in that endeavour.

So, Jakarta may justifiably argue, it would be inappropriate for it to ‘note cautiously’ China’s actions or remind it to adhere to its legal obligations, since its actions breach none of them.

But for a country seemingly so worried about Australia’s compliance with the spirit of arms control regimes, its silence on China’s activities in military technology and modernisation hardly suggests consistency.

This is doubly so in view of Indonesia’s criticism of the NPT nuclear-weapon states for failing to abide by their obligations to move towards disarmament, which historically it has articulated on behalf of the non-aligned movement in UN forums such as the Conference on Disarmament.

It would therefore be well aware that China is the only NPT nuclear-weapon state that is increasing its nuclear arsenal, which is surely an actual in-spirit breach, not just a prospective one.

Nothing reflects this distinction better than the reaction of Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, Luhut Pandjaitan, to a contemporaneous issue with Kemlu’s AUKUS statement.

Responding to questions as to why Indonesia hadn’t reacted publicly to China’s apparent hydrographic surveying of the sea floor in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone near the Natuna Islands, Luhut stated, ‘We don’t feel we have issues with China.’

‘It’s like with your brothers and sisters,’ he said. ‘Sometimes you have problems but don’t make it into a big problem.’

That Luhut considers China’s continuing flagrant violation of Indonesia’s sovereignty as legitimised under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—another instrument, incidentally, to which Jakarta felt obliged to refer in its statement on Australia’s submarines—so little a problem that it warrants no official public response is noteworthy.

One can only speculate as to why arguably Indonesia’s most powerful person sees things this way.

Indonesia has long repudiated China’s nine-dash-line-based claims in the South China Sea as incongruous with UNCLOS. Spooked by China’s earlier actions near the Natunas, more recently it has cited the 2016 arbitral tribunal’s decision in a note verbale to the UN contradicting China’s claims. It has toiled in ASEAN to resist China’s efforts to bilateralise the South China Sea issue and to promote a just, UNCLOS-based solution.

Moreover, Indonesia’s accelerating efforts to modernise its military, especially its air and sea assets, as well as its defence cooperation with the US, are no less a response to China’s bullying in Indonesia’s northern approaches than Australia’s are.

So, to say that Indonesia hasn’t been balanced in its official response to the most recent Australian and Chinese actions is not to suggest that it has taken an intentional position on China’s side and against the US and its allies.

But by the same token it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that when it comes to comprehensive strategic partners, in Jakarta’s eyes one is more equal than the other; and that, for all the arguments about norms and ‘spirit’, the underlying explanation for the difference is realpolitik.

Jakarta knows it can get away scot-free with casting veiled aspersions about Australia’s behaviour as an international citizen in a way it can’t with its other close strategic partner.

Still, we shouldn’t let these inconsistencies on Jakarta’s part stop us from responding seriously to its concerns, which, while exaggerated and amplified by their transmission, aren’t theoretically invalid.

Indeed, it would be prudent for Canberra to go out of its way to assuage them. It should make a virtue of such a necessity by taking sensible measures (perhaps like those proposed by experts in the field) that would practically reiterate Australia’s commitments to non-proliferation.

And it should do so in as open, cooperative fashion—in the spirit of a close strategic partner.