Since the Quad’s revival in 2017, Indonesia has been concerned that the grouping will undermine its traditional non-alignment and sideline ASEAN centrality in the region. Jakarta’s non-aligned foreign policy doctrine has helped it to skillfully sidestep formal security alliances, and despite today’s emerging U.S.-China hegemonic competition in Southeast Asia, it seems like Indonesia remains determined to maintain its delicate stance.
However, China’s increasingly aggressive behavior in Indonesia’s North Natuna Sea Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) challenges Indonesia’s national sovereignty and non-alignment, which is deeply concerning to both the Quad and Indonesia. These shared concerns have allowed Jakarta to deepen its strategic partnership with all of the Quad countries in recent years. Both Indonesia and the Quad share a common interest in maintaining an open and rules-based maritime order in the Indo-Pacific. This could be the catalyst for bringing the two parties closer together. In the future, Indonesia would benefit from seeking closer alignment with the Quad, while the Quad countries could invite Indonesia to become their inaugural strategic dialogue partner.
Standoff in the North Natuna Sea and Nusantara
President Joko Widodo’s Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF) vision aims to delicately keep the United States engaged in the Indo-Pacific while expanding economic cooperation with China. China is Indonesia’s largest trading partner and Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative is an integral part of Widodo’s infrastructure development program. The GMF also envisions making Indonesia a regional maritime power. However, it has fallen short of helping Indonesia reach its full maritime potential. Today, Indonesia’s navy is still considered ‘insufficient’ to defend its vast coastlines.
In recent years, the deficiencies of the Indonesian navy have been exposed, as it struggled to curb an increasing number of Chinese incursions into its Natuna Sea EEZ. China claims that Indonesia’s Natuna Sea EEZ slightly overlaps its widely disputed nine-dash line, while Jakarta seeks to avoid getting drawn into the South China Sea (SCS) disputes by declaring itself a non-claimant state. Last year, a major standoff between China and Indonesia occurred near Jakarta’s gas field in the EEZ. The standoff occurred after Beijing demanded Indonesia stop drilling for oil and gas in the North Natuna Sea. In response, Indonesia has further militarized the region, and has expanded its annual bilateral Garuda Shield exercise with the United States to include the three other Quad countries for the first time. The exercise also featured the first-ever tri-lateral airborne jump among the United States, Indonesia, and Japan.
The relocation of the Indonesian National Armed Forces to Nusantara and its proximity to the SCS will reinforce current plans to modernize Indonesia’s air and naval forces. This gives the United States — Indonesia’s largest military engagement partner — the chance to help strengthen Indonesia’s military presence in the Natuna archipelago. Indonesia’s new capital of Nusantara will also overlook the strategically significant Makassar Strait, which is an important gateway to the SCS.
Indonesia’s strategic relationships with Quad countries
The United States has already shown signs of helping Indonesia to upgrade its regional air force and navy capabilities. In February, Washington approved a USD 14 billion sale of advanced fighter jets to Indonesia. The United States hopes that the arms sale will help Indonesia to counter Chinese assertiveness in the Natuna Sea. The United States and Indonesia are also building a USD 3.5 million joint maritime training facility in Batam. The new facility will strengthen Indonesia’s military presence in the region, while at the same time expanding Washington’s engagement in the Natuna archipelago. More importantly for the Quad, the United States and Indonesia launched their strategic dialogue last year. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi jointly reaffirmed their commitment to defending freedom of navigation in the SCS.
Japan, Indonesia’s second-largest trading partner, endeavors to boost the Indonesian navy’s fighting capability. This year, Japan committed to providing support to strengthen Indonesia’s maritime security capability in the Natuna Islands. Both states are deeply concerned by China’s growing military build-up in both the East and South China Seas. In 2021, the two countries signed a historic agreement to facilitate the transfer of Japanese cutting-edge military equipment and technology to Indonesia. Tokyo also aspires to further deepen its strategic partnerships with like-minded regional countries, like Indonesia, to counter China’s growing assertiveness.
Indonesia enjoys a cordial bilateral relationship with the third Quad member, its strategic partner, India. In 2018, the two countries agreed to a Shared Vision of Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific: to improve the maritime connectivity between the two countries’ maritime boundary in the Andaman Sea. Indonesia and India are also developing the Sabang Deep Seaport in Aceh, which will boost Indonesia’s naval capability and expand the two maritime neighbors’ maritime connectivity. The two countries take part in joint annual naval exercises in the Andaman Sea.
Although Australia and Indonesia have had a rocky relationship over the past four decades, ties have improved significantly in recent years. In 2018, Jakarta and Canberra elevated their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership. The comprehensive 2021 Australia-Indonesia security deal, covered a wide range of areas including defense. The election of the Albanese Labor government could usher in a new golden era in the Australia-Indonesia strategic partnership. And with the Bahasa-speaking Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong by his side, Albanese made a successful first trip to Indonesia. In October, the Albanese government also reaffirmed its commitment to providing military training, conducting joint exercises, and exporting military hardware to Indonesia.
In recent years, the Quad countries have significantly developed their strategic relations with Indonesia. The Quad should build on this momentum and invite Indonesia to become its first strategic dialogue partner at the 2023 Quad leaders’ summit in Australia. Including Indonesia, which is located in the center of the Indian and Pacific oceans and is also ASEAN’s most powerful state, would strengthen the Quad’s shared interests in maintaining an open Indo-Pacific and the rules-based maritime order in the SCS. It would also strengthen the Quad’s shared interest in ensuring ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad’s Indo-Pacific Partnership Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) aims to maintain the rules-based maritime order in the SCS, by helping countries in Southeast Asia to track illegal fishing and maritime militia in their territorial waters. Indonesia’s inclusion would subsequently enable the expansion of the IPMDA.
For Indonesia, being the Quad’s dialogue partner would still place it outside the core structure of the Quad. Thus, Jakarta would be able to maintain neutrality, while at the same time strengthening its military posture in the Natuna Islands with the support of its partners in the Quad. Indonesia has made it clear that it wants to maintain the status quo in the region by securing a stronger U.S. presence. Ultimately, in order to secure its maritime boundary in the North Natuna Sea, Indonesia needs the support of like-minded strategic partners from the Quad more than ever.
Editor’s Note: A version of this piece was originally published on 9DashLine, and has been republished with permission of the editors.