Saturday, March 29, 2014

‘Exercise Komodo’ and the South China Sea

Today, naval representatives and warships from 18 different nations are converging in the southern part of the South China Sea known as Natuna.

Adopting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) as its main theme, Exercise Komodo highlights the growing role of the Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL) in international naval diplomacy. But held amid lingering tensions arising from territorial disputes in the South China Sea, what can we gauge from it?

Certainly, Exercise Komodo carries mixed messages. At first glance, the exercise attempts to display Indonesia’s growing role in naval diplomacy. Bringing in naval representatives from 18 countries is no easy task. Much less is the choice of timing and location in the South China Sea, where tensions remain high following incidents among the claimants.

Indeed, owing to the growing importance of regional maritime security issues, naval-centric cooperation is becoming increasingly vital, as facilitated by the ASEAN Navy Chiefs’ Meeting (ANCM).

During the last ANCM held in Manila, ASEAN navies agreed to establish an ANCM Plus process with navies from the eight dialogue partners of ASEAN.

By complementing the ANCM Plus process, Exercise Komodo could foster greater cooperation among the navies of ASEAN Plus countries. Last year, the TNI-AL also hosted the International Maritime Security Symposium, which drew nearly 350 participants, including from various navies across the region.

To this end, Exercise Komodo is certainly something Indonesia, particularly the TNI-AL, can be proud of. But questions linger on how this exercise could be sustained in the future, as the TNI-AL expects to make it biennial. Indeed, hosting an exercise is one thing, but making it continuous and regular is quite another.

Questions should also be asked about how this exercise adds value to other multinational naval exercises held in the region, apart from it being hosted by Indonesia. For example, how different is Exercise Komodo from India’s biennial “Milan” and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Plus maritime security exercises, as the latter two also carry similar themes on HADR?

Finally, given Australia’s recent withdrawal from the event (by only sending observers), will Exercise Komodo be made exclusive to regional navies Indonesia feels comfortable to partner with? These are legitimate questions to pose, especially if Indonesia wishes Exercise Komodo to be recognized well beyond its symbolic and prestige value.

Beyond naval diplomacy, the exercise underlines the significance of the South China Sea in Indonesia’s geostrategic calculus. While proclaiming itself as a non-claimant country, Indonesia’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone overlaps with China’s nine-dash line claim in the Natuna. It remains to be seen whether China will establish an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea.

But Beijing will certainly continue probing the limits of what Indonesia can bear under Jakarta’s so-called “silent diplomacy”. Chinese fishermen are moving further south into Natuna, which has led to occasional skirmishes between Indonesian and Chinese maritime authorities.

Earlier this year, China conducted a naval exercise in the Indian Ocean by transiting through the Indonesian straits of Sunda and Lombok.

While nothing was illegal about the exercise, it was clearly meant to show Chinese determination to protect maritime interests beyond its traditional area of operations in the Western Pacific defined commonly as the “two island chains”. It was also an example that China expected principal littoral countries — Australia, India and Indonesia — to pay serious attention to.

Despite these concerns, Indonesia follows a more restrained approach compared to the “immediate” claimant countries.

For example, Vietnam and the Philippines protested strongly against China’s announcement of fishing regulations in the South China Sea earlier this year. And Manila starkly compared Beijing to Nazi Germany during World War II. Last year, Malaysia even protested against China’s naval exercise in James Shoal located well within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone.

In contrast, Indonesia prefers to be seen as a neutral broker in dealing with China through ASEAN diplomatic engagements.

This might be largely owed to Jakarta’s growing economic and security linkages with Beijing.

Apart from being Indonesia’s largest trading partner, China has become an alternative arms supplier, if inferior, to Indonesia’s Russian and Western counterparts. This might exhibit increased warmth in political and security ties between the two countries, which last year elevated bilateral relations into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

Exercise Komodo also demonstrates Indonesia’s own naval aspirations to become a “world class navy”. Facilitated by increased defense budgets, Indonesia continues to spur naval modernization with new platforms being gradually inducted into the fleet.

However, capabilities aren’t just platforms. Ensuring their effective use is an equally important task. In this sense, Exercise Komodo provides an opportunity for the TNI-AL not only to learn lessons from others, but also to enhance inter-operability with other navies in HADR operations, such as tsunami relief.

Accomplishing this task is neither easy nor simultaneous. A comfortable degree of trust and confidence is required as a prerequisite. Hence, Australia’s withdrawal from this exercise might signal a considerable trust deficit between the two countries.

An unstated aim of the exercise might be to reassure regional countries, especially neighbors, of Indonesia’s peaceful naval modernization. Aiming to become a “Green Water Navy”, the TNI-AL aims to acquire up to 274 warships of various types by 2024.

While that aim is quite ambitious, Indonesia’s naval acquisitions have drawn considerable interests from neighboring countries. For example, Singapore raised objections over the naming of one of TNI-AL’s newly-purchased frigates due to past historical grievances.

Finally, it would be wise to neither overvalue nor overestimate the results of Exercise Komodo. While salutary in itself for the TNI-AL to host an inaugural multinational exercise, it is only one of many building blocks toward promoting cooperation among regional navies.

Instead, the real impact of Exercise Komodo can only be gauged cumulatively with other regional cooperation initiatives, in the hope that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. That being said, it should be the least of what regional countries can do to stabilize the volatile waters of the South China Sea.

The writer is an associate research fellow with the Maritime Security Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

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