Indonesia and the United States kicked off their largest annual joint military exercise on Monday, with Australia, Singapore and Japan also participating, in a show of defense partnership amid rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific region.
The “Super Garuda Shield” exercise is “significantly larger in scope and scale than previous exercises, with many nations participating or observing for the first time,” said the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.
About 4,000 mostly Indonesian and U.S. troops are taking part in the two-week drills on Sumatra and Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo island.
“This is a purely military-to-military exercise,” Maj. Gen. Stephen Smith, commander of the participating U.S. troops, said during a press briefing in Jakarta on Friday.
“This is not a threat or should not be viewed as a threat to anybody, anywhere,” Smith said.
Last week, China announced a series of live-fire drills in the contested South China Sea amid reports of a potential visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi and her congressional delegation arrived in Singapore on Monday, at the start of a tour of Indo-Pacific nations. She was due to visit Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, with Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob hosting her for lunch, an aide to the Malaysian leader said.
While Taiwan wasn’t on Pelosi’s official four-country itinerary, sources told Radio Free Asia (RFA) and other media that she would make an unofficial trip on Tuesday night to Taiwan. RFA is an online news service affiliated with BenarNews.
The United States doesn’t recognize Taiwan diplomatically, but retains close unofficial ties with Taipei and is obligated by law to provide it with defense capabilities. Beijing considers the self-ruling, democratic island a breakaway province, to be united with the mainland by force if necessary, and objects strongly to high-level U.S. visits.
The larger scale of Garuda Shield, and extended participation of partners and observers, is a “calculated decision” by Jakarta, according to an Indonesian analyst.
“The point is to show that Indonesia can cooperate with whoever she wants,” said Satya Pratama, a senior Indonesian government official and maritime defense analyst.
“Indonesia has a ‘free and active’ foreign policy – free to engage with whichever partner and friend and active in ensuring global security based on Indonesia’s national interests,” Satya said.
Traditionally, the Garuda Shield exercises involved only the army and paratroopers, but Super Garuda Shield 2022 involves the navies of expanded participants, including Japan and Singapore.
“The inclusion of the navy into the training agenda represents a shift in strategic thinking that Indonesia’s territorial waters and jurisdictions are now becoming more vulnerable to external threats,” said Dedi Dinarto, lead Indonesia analyst at public policy advisory firm Global Counsel.
The Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam hold claims in the South China Sea, but China’s are the most expansive, covering nearly 90 percent of the maritime region. Indonesia is not a claimant, but Beijing says it has historic rights to parts of the sea that overlap Jakarta’s exclusive economic zone.
At a forum in Washington last week, Ely Ratner, assistant U.S. secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said there had been a dramatic increase in Chinese military ships and aircraft acting aggressively toward other forces in the region.
“If the PLA continues this pattern of behavior, it is only a matter of time before there is a major incident or accident in the region,” Ratner said, referring to China’s People’s Liberation Army.
Now, Indonesia is training its troops for a potential conflict in the waterway, according to Connie Bakrie, a security analyst at the University of Indonesia.
“Indonesia wants to show that it is capable of operating multilaterally,” Connie told BenarNews.
“The message is that Indonesia is fully prepared for any high-intensity conflict in the South China Sea area.”
The selection of the Riau Islands as one of the training locations in Super Garuda Shield 2022 is also significant.
In 2016 and early 2020, tensions flared over the presence of Chinese fishing boats in the waters near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands where Beijing told Jakarta to stop drilling for oil and gas.
“The Riau Islands Province covers the North Natuna Sea, and the naval training in this area could help participating countries understand the operating context behind these incidents,” Dedi said.
By choosing the Riau Islands, “it reveals the strategic weight defense policymakers are placing on strengthening the outer provinces as Indonesia’s defense frontier.”
Training will also occur in Amborawang Darat in East Kalimantan province, close to the new capital city project in Penajam Paser Utara, Dedi said, adding this year’s exercise “presents an opportunity for Indonesia’s military to demonstrate its abilities in safeguarding the new capital from potential threats.”
‘Free and open Indo-Pacific’
The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta said the exercise “strengthens the U.S.-Indonesia Strategic Partnership and advances regional cooperation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
“Trainings, academic exchanges and professional development workshops focused on the corps-level and below will focus on areas such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as combating conventional, unconventional and hybrid threats,” the embassy said.
Super Garuda Shield 2022 runs through Aug. 14. Canada, France, India, Malaysia, South Korea, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Great Britain will participate as observer nations.
Dandy Koswaraputra and Alvin Prasetyo in Jakarta and Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.