Imagine this scenario: an Indonesian company is drilling for oil within its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, when the platform is suddenly swarmed by Chinese navy and coast guard vessels. Not far away, there is a U.S. Navy ship, perhaps on a routine patrol through contested waters. What does the Indonesian government decide to do next?
This and similar scenarios have been the subject of tabletop exercises conducted in recent years by Indonesian and U.S. think tanks, says Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a Research Professor at the National Research and Innovation Agency in Jakarta.
She says that for Indonesian officials and policymakers, the answer is always the same. “All Indonesians, whether civilians or military, said we want the information from the U.S., if we need assistance maybe some technology,” she says, “but we do not want the U.S. ship to come over.”
Despite this ambivalence, the U.S.-Indonesian security relationship is intensifying. The most obvious symbol of this is the Super Garuda Shield, which just wrapped up. The U.S.-Indonesian military exercise held since 2007 has increased sharply in scale and complexity over the past two years. Roughly 2,100 U.S. and 1,900 Indonesian service members from across multiple military branches participated.
The context of America’s growing push to contain China in the Indo-Pacific by strengthening its security partnerships with regional powers is hard to miss. Close U.S. allies and partners including Japan, Australia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and France joined the exercises as participants, and 12 countries sent observers. Notably, Australia will be deploying battle tanks abroad for the first time since the Vietnam War – transporting some itself and others transported by the U.S. Army.
Yet on the Indonesian side, clear limits remain. China’s ongoing claims to parts of the North Natuna Sea, the name that Jakarta uses for the portions of its exclusive economic zone near the Natuna Islands, incentivizes Indonesia to strengthen its relationship with the United States. However, Indonesia remains wedded to its long tradition of non-alignment and is wary of becoming over-reliant on the U.S. for security provisions.
U.S.-Indonesian security ties have a long history, reaching their high point in the de facto, though firmly not de jure, alliance during the Suharto period. However, relations declined when the end of the Cold War allowed the U.S. to develop scruples about supporting dictators generally and Indonesia’s bloody occupation of East Timor in particular. In 1992, the U.S. ceased providing training under the International Military Education and Training program, in 1998 stopped training Indonesia’s elite special forces Kopassus, and in 1999 imposed an arms embargo against Indonesia.
From 2005 on, however, the relationship started to be repaired. The arms embargo ended and IMET was restored. The Garuda Shield exercises were established two years later, and in 2019 restrictions on training with Kopassus were finally brought to an end. That same year, the U.S. also dropped a ban on Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto entering the United States. Put in place due to Prabowo’s human rights record when he served as a general under Suharto, his assumption of office in 2019 forced a change in U.S. policy.
Now the relationship seems to be advancing once more. Indonesia attempted to modernize its military since the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. In the process, the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) has shifted its focus from internal threats to external ones, and from the TNI’s land forces to the navy and air force. The U.S. is working to support this, most recently authorizing significant sales of military equipment to Indonesia including F-15 fighter jets and Black Hawk helicopters.
The U.S. has also provided quiet help to other forces such as Bakamala, the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency. In 2021, the U.S. began constructing a maritime training center for Bakamala on the strategically located island of Batam.
Most visibly, both countries have also ramped up the Garuda Shield exercise, reflected in the “Super” that was affixed to its name last year. For the second year running the exercise ended with a CALFEX – a combined arms live fire exercise – a challenging exercise that tests the interoperability of the various participating forces.
“The scope and scale of that live fire was not something we could have done two years ago. And it’s even bigger than last year’s because it includes more partners and allies, and it includes more live fire assets,” said Maj. Jeff Tolbert, deputy public affairs officer for the 25th Infantry Division. “It’s just that next level up.”
The balance between a U.S. desire to build security relations with Indonesia for their own sake and as part of the broader Indo-Pacific strategy facing China remains ambiguous. Col. David Zinn of the 25th Infantry Division firmly denied any link between the exercises and Washington’s China containment policy. However, when asked about the importance and strategic context of the partnership with Indonesia, Zinn did refer to Operation Pathways, an annual operation and the U.S. Pacific Army’s game plan to deploy forces throughout the Pacific to secure interior lines in the event of a conflict.
The Super Garuda Shield exercise doesn’t only let the U.S. flex its muscles in front of China, says Fitri Bintang Timur, a visiting fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. It also lets America test its interoperability with allies in a key theater, and how fast it can deploy in the region.
On the Indonesian side, security cooperation with the U.S. does benefit its efforts to push back against China’s maritime claims. “ASEAN is in the business of creating norms and values. But, when you have to deal with real issues you don’t go to ASEAN,” says Dewi. Cooperation on a bilateral or minilateral level is much more common, and effective, she suggests.
Indonesia did recently propose a joint ASEAN naval exercise, but its fate remains uncertain. Internal divisions over the South China Sea, and the possible concerns of some member states about Indonesia becoming too influential could stymie the idea.
However, the Indonesian government is also wary of becoming overly dependent on the United States. While there are few outward signs that Defense Minister Prabowo or other officers resent the U.S. policies of disassociating itself from the Indonesian military in the 1990s and 2000s, the memory remains.
When it comes to military purchases Indonesia has made substantial orders of military equipment from not just America but also from France, Japan, Italy, Qatar, and Turkey. The past U.S. arms embargo played a role in pushing Indonesia to seek out diverse suppliers of military equipment, Dewi suggests.
Indonesia is even more averse to anything that might imply a broader geopolitical alignment with the U.S., let alone an alignment against China. As with Vietnam or even Singapore, security relations with the U.S. allow Indonesia to hedge against increasing Chinese power and assertiveness in the region. But, this is balanced against a historical commitment to non-alignment – Indonesia’s preference for a foreign policy that is bebas dan aktif (free and active) – and strong relations with China, not least in the economic sphere.
Indeed, if anything, Indonesia tends to view American actions as overly confrontational. When the Trump administration launched its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, Indonesia recoiled at the confrontational tenor of the policy and responded by spearheading the formulation of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, as former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Scot Marciel wrote in his recent book. AUKUS was even more unwelcome, with Indonesia now pushing the International Energy Agency to implement tighter controls on the transfer of fissile materials. As tensions flared over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, Indonesia called on all sides to de-escalate the situation.
The difficulties Indonesia can face calibrating its relationship with the U.S. were on display last month when Prabowo visited Washington, D.C. A purported joint statement by him and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, issued by the Pentagon, not only expressed support for Indonesia’s military modernization but also condemned China’s claims in the South China Sea as “inconsistent with international law.”
China protested indignantly. And, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, received assurances from the Indonesian government that the statement was not true. “Indonesia is on the record saying that the South China Sea issue should be resolved through international law,” Marciel told The Diplomat. “That’s not really new, but it wouldn’t really surprise me that they don’t necessarily want to be seen at the Pentagon standing next to the U.S. shouting it.”
Looking ahead, figures on both the U.S. and Indonesian side expect security relations to continue to deepen. However, the ultimate trajectory will be shaped by the broader course of the Sino-American rivalry. As one Indonesian officer now serving as a lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University noted, “The relationship could elevate to a higher level if any open conflict takes place in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in the South China Sea.”
Yet, there is also the risk that the U.S. relies on the security relationship as a crutch to compensate for its limited offerings in other spheres. When it comes to security ties the U.S. has a distinct edge over China. In the past two decades, it has trained thousands of Indonesian officers and performed nearly a hundred joint exercises with the country. China has trained a bare handful and no joint exercises have been held since 2015 due to the territorial dispute.
Nonetheless, China remains a key Indonesian partner due to its economic importance to Indonesia – both as a source of investment and as a destination for exports. If the U.S. cannot broaden its relationship and what it offers to Indonesia it may find that in the diplomatic sphere, security ties will take it only so far.