The US plan to establish a military base in Darwin, the closest Australian city to Indonesia, may place the archipelago in the midst of a South China Sea dispute, says a top military chief.
Indonesian Military (TNI) commander Adm. Agus Suhartono said the military had begun assessing the potential impacts of the plan on Indonesia.
“Their military fleets would very likely go back and forth through our waters, given the analysis that the planned base will have to conduct due to rising tensions in the South China Sea,” Agus said in an interview with The Jakarta Post on Thursday.
US and Chinese military chiefs have clashed over US naval exercises in the South China Sea. While China claims that part of the sea is within its territory, the US has recently held joint drills with the Philippines and is planning similar activities with Vietnam, which it labels as regular training exercises.
Analysts and international observers have agreed that the new base will most likely look to address tensions in the South China Sea, given China’s increasing assertiveness in the region.
Although construction of the base will begin in 2012, it would be important to observe its impact in terms of political and security stability as early as possible, said Agus, who once served as the TNI’s Navy chief of staff.
“We haven’t learnt clearly what this deal is but we have been studying the plan and analyzing any potential impacts on Indonesia as well as on the Southeast Asian region. We have begun consulting all sources concerned with this issue,” he said.
On Wednesday, US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard unveiled plans to deepen the US’ military presence in the Asia-Pacific region by establishing a US base equipped with 2,500 US marines located in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Darwin is Australia’s northernmost major city, only 820 kilometers from Indonesia’s boundary.
The city is considered a strategic location from which US troops could quickly respond to any security issues in the South China Sea, or act when military engagement in nearby regions was required.
On Wednesday, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the US-Australia agreement could “provoke a reaction and counter-reaction that would create a vicious cycle of tensions and mistrust”.
Agus said he agreed with the suggestion that such a plan should have been discussed with other affected nations, including Indonesia.
“Government talks in the future are still necessary in seeking solutions. I also believe that the US respects our sovereignty. We need to settle on the rules of engagement,” he said.
Agus also raised concerns over the US not yet ratifying the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“By ratifying the UNCLOS, I think the US will have more room to operate in international waters. It will be more beneficial for them while at the same time reducing negative impacts on Indonesia,” Agus said.
Hikmahanto Juwana, a University of Indonesia international legal expert, said Marty’s statement had been aimed at communicating to the US that Indonesia would not let the Asean region be used as a “battlefield” between the US and China.
China has reportedly proposed the establishment of a military base in Timor Leste, Indonesia’s neighbor, according to Hikmahanto.
While Timor Leste has yet to approve the proposal, China has continued to assist it by supporting the development of Timor Leste’s state offices and public facilities.
“China has felt threatened by the Philippines, which has been presumed as making ASEAN face up to the South China Sea dispute,” Hikmahanto said.
China and the four ASEAN countries of Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan, have territorial disputes in some areas of the South China Sea.
Hikmahanto added that the Darwin-base plan could also be seen as a US move to warn China against intimidating countries with weaker militaries that were involved in the dispute.