By Ronna Nirmala and Shailaja Neelakantan
The competition between the United States and France for Indo-Pacific allies heated up on Thursday as both nations wooed Indonesia with fighter-jet sales, as Southeast Asia’s leading power looks to modernize its military arsenal.
Indonesia signed a deal to acquire six of a potential 42 French Rafale fighter-jets, Jakarta said Thursday, as Paris, which has territory in the South Pacific, deepens its strategic defense alliances in the Indo-Pacific.
Meanwhile late on Thursday, the State Department approved the possible sale of F-15ID aircraft and equipment to Jakarta in a potential U.S. $13.9 billion deal, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced in a statement. The agency said Indonesia had requested to buy 36 such aircraft.
Indonesia also signed a preliminary agreement for joint production and assembly of French Scorpene submarines, five months after Australia infuriated Paris by canceling a large submarine deal upon joining a U.S.-U.K. security agreement.
“We are planning to acquire 42 Rafale aircraft,” Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo told reporters after meeting in Jakarta with French Minister for Armed Forces Florence Parly.
“We started this today with the signing of a contract for six aircraft, to be followed soon with another for 36 with necessary support and simulators,” he added.
The deal signed Thursday also includes satellite procurement, and the production of large-caliber ammunition.
Neither Prabowo or Parly revealed the value of the entire deal or when the Rafales would be delivered.
However, without citing a source, the Reuters news agency reported that the deal, including 42 Rafales, would be worth U.S. $8.1 billion. Reuters also said the contract for the six Rafale would be “executed over the next months.”
In Washington, the DSCA said that it had delivered the required certification notifying Congress of the possible sale of F-15ID aircraft and related equipment to Indonesia. The notification does not imply that a sale agreement has been reached.
“The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Government of Indonesia of F-15ID Aircraft and related equipment for an estimated cost of $13.9 billion,” the DSCA statement said. “The Government of Indonesia has requested to buy up to thirty-six (36) F-15ID aircraft,” spare engines, radar systems and related equipment, the statement added.
“The proposed sale will improve Indonesia’s capability to meet current and future threats by enabling it to provide increased deterrence and air defense coverage across a very complex air and maritime domain,” the DSCA said.
‘Deepening of our defense relations’
Parly, the visiting French minister, said Indonesia would be the second Indo-Pacific country to acquire the Rafale, after India.
“Our strategic partnership will benefit from the deepening of our defense relations,” she said.
“France is proud to contribute to the modernization of the armed forces of our partner, which plays a key role within ASEAN and in the Indo-Pacific,” she added, referring to the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations.
The Indo-Pacific region is home to nearly 2 million French citizens and 9 million square kilometers (3.47 million square miles) of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Parly said. France’s island territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans include Mayotte, La Réunion, New Caledonia and French Polynesia.
Having been left out of two United States-led Indo-Pacific initiatives – the Quad strategic dialogue group and the AUKUS defense pact – France is looking to Southeast Asia to forge relationships. And Indonesia, Paris has said, is “at the heart of France’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific region.”
France was also courting Indonesia after Paris lost a major contract to sell submarines to Australia, following the announcement of the AUKUS pact. Under AUKUS, the United States and the United Kingdom will share technology for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.
Both the Quad and AUKUS are said to have been formed to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea where China holds sweeping claims that are disputed by its neighbors.
Even though is not a territorial claimant in the South China Sea, Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone overlaps China’s claims. China has demanded that Indonesia stop oil and gas drilling at sea, alleging in an unprecedented diplomatic note some months ago that these activities were occurring in South China Sea waters it claims, an Indonesian lawmaker said in December.
Still, the announcement about AUKUS last September was of concern to Indonesia as well as France.
Indonesia is “very concerned about the continued arms race and projection of military power in the region,” a foreign ministry statement said back then.
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo welcomed the deal during talks with Parly on Thursday, according to a statement released by his office.
Jokowi and Parly discussed ways to contribute to peace in the Indo-Pacific, including through regular meetings between the two countries’ defense and foreign ministers under a forum called 2+2, the statement said.
“Our 2+2 dialogue mechanism will become a strategic forum to realize the vision of a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” Jokowi said.
‘Compensates for France’s loss’
Teguh Nasution, a security and military observer, said the deal was a win for France because it was trying to court Indo-Pacific countries following the AUKUS debacle.
“The Rafale deal compensates for France’s loss vis-a-vis Australia and at the same time also helps reestablish its standing in the Indo-Pacific region,” Teguh told BenarNews.
For Indonesia, which wants to upgrade and modernize its military arsenal, the Rafales will be a more than welcome addition.
In December, Indonesia’s air force commander, Air Marshal Fadjar Prasetyo, announced that Jakarta had abandoned a deal to purchase Sukhoi Su-35 fighter-jets from Russia, and instead set its sights on U.S.-made F-15s and Rafales.
Tria Dianti in Jakarta contributed to this article.