At the end of March, I reported on the agreement penned between Japan and Indonesia, opening the way to Japanese defense exports to the Indonesian armed forces. The pact was signed during “two plus two” security talks on March 30 between the foreign and defense ministers of the two governments, which are bound by overlapping concerns about China’s burgeoning influence and territorial claims in the East and South China seas.
According to reports this week in the defense press, under the arms export agreement, Japan could deliver up to eight of its new Mogami-class stealth frigates to the Indonesian Navy. Known by the designations 30FFM, 30FF, 30DX, and 30DEX, the first of the cutting-edge, multi-role frigates are currently being built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding at shipyards in Nagasaki and Tamano.
In November, JS Kumano, the first completed Mogami-class vessel, was launched at the Mitsui Tamano Shipyard, while the JS Mogami, the lead ship of the class, rolled out at the Nagasaki Shipyard & Machinery Works at the start of March.
These are two of the 22 that have been ordered for the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force. According to a report in Sea Power magazine, the frigates are intended to replace some of the force’s mine warfare ships and escort ships, and will be used for peacekeeping, anti-piracy, and humanitarian missions.
According to earlier reports, the provisional plan calls for Japan to deliver four of the vessels in late 2023 or early 2024, and for the remaining four to be built by the state-run company PT PAL at its shipyard in Surabaya under a technology transfer agreement.
From Indonesia’s perspective, the motivation for the deal is not hard to discern. While Jakarta is not a formal claimant in the South China Sea, in recent years it has experienced frictions with China in waters around the Natuna islands, some of which lie on the wrong side of Beijing’s expansive and legally dubious “nine-dash line” maritime claim.
In response, the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) has bolstered its presence on Natuna Besar, the largest of the islands in the area, and held military exercises in surrounding waters, where China has asserted “traditional” fishing rights. On April 5, the navy held a ceremony to mark the start of construction of a submarine “support station” on Natuna Besar, a possible prelude to the construction of a submarine base on the island.
The maritime challenge posed by China has been illustrated in recent weeks, as the Philippines and China have engaged in a heated war or words over more than 200 Chinese maritime militia vessels that continue to loiter threateningly around Whitsun Reef, a low-tide elevation in the Spratly Islands, which lies within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
During meetings on March 30, Japan and Indonesia issued a joint statement expressing their “grave concern over the continuation and escalation of an attempt to change the status quo by force” and agreed on the importance of observing international maritime laws.
At $450 million per ship, the putative Mogami-class deal would be worth $3.6 billion, making it by far the largest ever arms deal between Indonesia and Japan. It would also greatly bolster the Indonesian Navy’s long-range patrol capabilities. Equipped with MK 45 5-inch gun, anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles, Type 12 torpedoes, and decoy launchers, the Mogami-class has an operating range of 18,000 kilometers, more than twice that of the Indonesian Navy’s existing frigates and corvettes.
The purchases would be in line with a steady augmentation of Indonesia’s military spending, which as a proportion of gross domestic product was the second-lowest in Southeast Asia in 2019. The nation’s military spending jumped up sharply in 2020, to $9.26 billion, a 19.8 percent increase from the year before.
As suggested by this potential Japanese purchase, recent acquisitions have focused on the air force and navy, which have traditionally been neglected at the expense of the TNI’s land forces. This reflects both internal political alignments within the TNI and the military’s focus on putting down the raft of insurgencies and separatist rebellions that have plagued Indonesia since independence.
The deal would also mark a strengthening of Indonesia’s strategic defense relationship with Japan, part of a thickening web of bilateral ties between the nations that stand on the leading edge of growing Chinese maritime assertiveness. Indeed, as long as Beijing’s belligerent actions continue, we can expect to see many more such agreements in the years to come.