Long a “neutral” player in Asia’s game of thrones, Indonesia is starting to take sides. Reuters has the story:
Indonesian warplanes on Thursday staged a large-scale exercise on the edge of South China Sea territory claimed by Beijing, a show of force that adds to regional uncertainty sparked by the Philippines’ sudden tilt away from the United States.
President Joko Widodo watched from Ranai, capital of the Natuna Islands archipelago, with hundreds of military officials as about 70 jets carried out manoeuvres that included a dog fight and dropping bombs on targets off the coast.
“The president has a policy that all the outer islands that are strategic will be strengthened, be it air, maritime or land,” Gatot Nurmantyo, commander of the Indonesian National Armed Forces, told reporters.
“Our country needs to have an umbrella. From corner to corner, we have to safeguard it.”
Jakarta’s display has been a long time coming. Over the past year nationalist sentiment has been rising in Indonesia. In a particularly aggressive display, the country celebrated its Independence Day by sinking twenty fishing vessels from Malaysia, the Philippines, China, and Vietnam which had been captured in Indonesian-claimed waters.
Indonesia has tried to be an equal opportunity defender when it comes to shows of force: China is one of many countries Jakarta accuses of violating its territorial integrity. But it’s clear that Beijing’s behavior is the most aggressive in the region and that its actions are causing the greatest backlash. The question for the United States is whether Indonesia will come to see China’s threat as serious enough to override concerns about other Southeast Asian countries. It’s very difficult to picture Indonesia and Malaysia getting along, for example.
What we’re seeing in Asia is the geopolitical version of Newton’s Third Law: Where China pushes, it encounters a forceful response. The question is how long will it take for China’s growing military and economic heft to overwhelm everyone else in the region. Unlike in physics, in geopolitics every action need not necessarily have an equal and opposite reaction. In Asia, that symmetry only exists because the United States adds its own pressure. Without the presence of effective American power, China pushes harder than anyone else.