Boosting Indonesia’s Naval and Air Defenses in the South China Sea

Until September, Indonesia seemed sure to increase its defense budget in the coming year.  Rising concern over Chinese actions in the South China Sea had already prompted Indonesian leaders to pledge themselves to do more to safeguard Indonesia’s maritime claims in the region.  Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo promised to turn the Indonesian military into “a regional maritime force respected by countries in the East Asia region.”  A senior Indonesian military official was more direct—putting China on notice that Indonesia would defend its maritime space around the Natuna Islands, including those parts that fall within China’s nine-dash claim line in the South China Sea.[1]

Indonesia China Claims in the South China Sea

But to properly defend Indonesia’s maritime interests, the Indonesian military has had to reorient itself onto what it calls a “maritime axis.”  That process was formalized in its 2010 Strategic Defense Plan.  It detailed what Indonesia would need to do to modernize its long-neglected navy and air force.  Since 2011, both have begun to procure newer equipment.  The navy ordered three Type 209/1400 diesel-electric attack submarines from South Korea, two Sigma-class corvettes from the Netherlands, and a number of fast attack craft from Indonesian shipyards.  It also acquired three small British-built frigates.  Meanwhile, the air force acquired the first of 24 retired American F-16C/D fighters, which will be refurbished and outfitted with new radar systems to give them better maritime and strike capabilities.

However, the momentum of Indonesia’s military procurement seemed to have faltered in September, when Joko’s government submitted its proposed 2016 state budget to the Indonesian People’s Representative Council (DPR).  In that budget, the government cut the defense allocation by 6.3% from Rp 102.3 trillion ($7 billion) to Rp 95.8 trillion ($6.5 billion).  A few weeks later, the government awarded a $5 billion high-speed railway contract to a giant Chinese state-owned enterprise.  Some wondered whether Indonesia had chosen to take a softer line towards China.[2]

More likely, though, Indonesia’s weakening economy drove both decisions, rather than any easing of its concerns over the South China Sea.  Joko’s government has argued that it needed to shift resources away from military spending to fund a series of stimulus packages to revive the Indonesian economy, which has suffered as the country’s raw material exports have fallen, a problem deepened by the government’s ill-timed reforms of Indonesia’s mining industry.  With respect to the contract award, the Chinese bid was sweetened at the last minute with a financial package for the proposed railway’s construction that did not require any loan guarantees from the Indonesian government, freeing it from any liabilities if the expensive project failed to meet expectations.  That was something Japan’s competing offer could not match.[3]

Whatever the reason for the lower defense allocation, it will hinder the modernization of Indonesia’s naval and air forces.  During budgetary testimony in October, General Gatot Nurmantyo, the commander of Indonesian armed forces, told the DPR’s defense commission that the lower defense allocation would force him to delay or scrap a number of procurement programs.  That prompted some on the DPR defense commission to worry whether the Indonesian military would have enough resources to achieve its “Minimum Essential Force,” the minimum requirements needed to defend Indonesia’s maritime interests.  Hence, the commission adopted a new proposal to add Rp 37.1 trillion ($2.5 billion) to the defense budget.  Ultimately, the DPR’s budget commission pared back that proposal, but still boosted the defense budget to Rp 99.5 trillion ($6.7 billion).[4]

While the new budget still represents a decrease from a year earlier, the small increase over the government’s proposal will help to keep some procurement programs on track and offset the falling value of the Indonesian rupiah against the U.S. dollar, which has made purchases of foreign military equipment more expensive.  In any case, Indonesia has also pursued other financing means to support its military procurement.  In early September, the Indonesian Ministry of Finance arranged for PT Bank Negara Indonesia to provide credit worth Rp 980 billion ($666 million) to the military for a variety of acquisitions.  Soon thereafter, the DPR’s defense commission revealed that Jakarta was seeking to secure a $3 billion loan from Moscow to fund major acquisitions.[5]  If the loan is finalized, Indonesia’s Ministry of Defense will most likely use it to acquire Russian Su-35 fighters and Kilo-class submarines, both of which the DPR’s defense commission has already endorsed.  As the one commission member said of Indonesia: “[we are] a maritime country… so sea security must be prioritized.”[6]

Yet, even with such support for new kit, the Indonesian military will have to stretch its resources to set up adequate defenses in the South China Sea.  The military has already listed a number of infrastructure improvements on and around the Natuna Islands that need to be completed before it can station more forces there.  The improvements include the construction of facilities for 2,000 additional troops; expansion of a naval base at Pontianak; and upgrade of Ranai air base with new hangars, radar, and a longer runway.  In September, Minister of Defense Ryamizard Ryacudu visited Natuna Island to draw attention to Indonesia’s efforts to beef up defenses in the area.  He noted plans to deploy three ships and four fighter aircraft on the island.[7]

In the near future, Indonesia is expected to publish a new defense white paper.  It will likely detail the growing maritime threats to Indonesian security.  Along with Jakarta’s ongoing attempts to strengthen its navy and air force, it reflects the intent of Indonesian leaders to better protect their country’s interests in the South China Sea.  But how quickly those leaders can do so is an open question.  They have a long way to go before they can bring to fruition the robust force structure envisioned in the 2010 Strategic Defense Plan.  Despite the progress made over the last five years, the defenses on the Natuna Islands are only just beginning to improve.  For now, Ranai air base still has the air of a remote outpost, operating a single 1980s-era radar set.  Perhaps in the coming years more military hardware will finally reach it.

[1] “Jokowi wants RI to be respected maritime force by 2020,” Jakarta Post, Oct. 5, 2015; Moeldoko, “China’s Dismaying New Claims in the South China Sea,” Wall Street Journal, Apr. 24, 2014.

[2] Kanupriya Kapoor and Cindy Silviana, “UPDATE 2-Indonesia rewards China’s ‘courage’ with high-profile rail contract,” Reuters, Sep. 30, 2015; Nani Afrida, “The TNI to cut back on weapons procurement,” Jakarta Post, Sep. 9, 2015.

[3] Robin Harding, Avantika Chilkoti, and Tom Mitchell, “Tokyo furious after Jakarta awards rail contract to Beijing,” Financial Times, Oct. 2, 2015, p. 6; Avantika Chilkoti and Taufan Hidayat, “Indonesia rolls out next stimulus phase in effort to lift economy,” Financial Times, Sep. 29, 2015.

[4] Lili Sunardi Senin, Kementerian, “PU Dapat Anggaran Terbanyak Dari APBN 2016,” Bisnis.com, Nov. 2, 2015; Jon Grevatt, “Indonesian parliamentary commission approves defence spending increase,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Sep. 28, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “National scene: House support plans to buy Russian submarine,” Jakarta Post, Sep. 30, 2015.

[7] “Indonesia: Islanders on Alert,” NHK World, Nov. 11, 2015; “Indonesia’s Defense Ministry to focus on improving infrastructure in Natuna,” Antaranews.com, Sep. 21, 2015; “Indonesian military adds two thousand personnel to guard Natuna waters,” Antaranews.com, Sep. 16, 2015; Ridzwan Rahmat, “Indonesia to upgrade naval base near disputed South China Sea waters,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 9, 2014.

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The Bigger Picture: China’s Energy Exploration in the East China Sea and Japan’s Security Debate

Last week Japan released its annual defense review.  For the first time, it revealed photographs of Chinese offshore drilling rigs operating in the East China Sea.  The images reminded many of the international controversy that China stirred up in May 2014 when it sent the Hai Yang Shi You 981 offshore drilling rig (pictured below) into waters claimed by Vietnam.  The photographs reinforce the narrative that China is intent on pursuing its own interests, regardless of the consequences for its neighbors.  That, along with its island-building activities in the South China Sea, has made it increasingly difficult for Asian countries, like Indonesia and Malaysia, to set aside their concerns over Chinese actions in the region.

China offshore energy exploration

China’s foreign ministry quickly denounced the Japanese disclosure of the photographs.  It decried them as inflammatory and declared that Japan’s use of the photographs “provokes confrontation between the two countries, and is not constructive at all to the management of the East China Sea situation and the improvement of bilateral relations.”[1]

China maintains that the offshore drilling rigs that it has erected in the East China Sea are on its side of the median line through the two countries’ claims.  Thus, China has every right to develop the energy resources there.  Unfortunately, man-made demarcations cannot so neatly divide the East China Sea’s oil and natural gas deposits.  Rather, they tend to migrate towards areas of lower pressure.  Those occur whenever wells are drilled nearby.  Hence, Japan fears that Chinese wells will siphon off the oil and natural gas deposits under its claim from across the median line.

That prospect was thought to have been put to rest in 2008, when China and Japan agreed to jointly develop energy resources in the disputed waters of the East China Sea.  Neither side would unilaterally drill for oil or natural gas there.  But those were different times.  Since then, China has become not only more powerful, but also more willing to openly assert its power in the region.  Japan (whether consciously or not) antagonized China when Japan’s central government bought the disputed Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu in China) from private Japanese owners in 2012.  That prompted a sharp rise in the number of clashes between Chinese fishing boats and the Japanese coast guard around the islands, and China to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the disputed waters in November 2013.  At the same time, China did begin to unilaterally explore for oil and natural gas in those waters, as Japan’s photographs attest.

Even so, China may be correct to discern a political rationale for Japan’s photographic disclosure, though perhaps not the one that its foreign ministry seemed to intimate.  The main reason behind Japan’s disclosure may not have been to embarrass China, but rather to support Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s effort to pass security legislation that will enable Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to participate in collective self-defense—or in other words, to fight alongside an ally when either it or Japan is threatened.  Indeed, the photographic disclosure was made only a week before the upper house of the Japanese Diet starts debate on Abe’s new security bills.

The photographs surely boost the argument of Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), that there is a clear and present danger to Japan’s national interests and more must be done to protect them.  But a chorus of Japanese politicians of different political stripes has joined in opposition to Abe’s effort to push through the security legislation without a thorough debate.  Many, including some within the LDP, are concerned about passing the security bills without a clear understanding of the circumstances in which Japanese military forces could be used.  The ultimate vote could be a close one, given that the LDP holds a slim majority in the upper house.  Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but Abe may hope that they are worth a few votes too.

[1] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang’s Remarks on Japan’s Disclosure of China’s Oil and Gas Exploration in the East China Sea,” China Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release, July 23, 2015, .

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Strategic Intentions: China’s Military Strategy White Paper

On Tuesday, China published its latest defense white paper.  Unlike its’ eight predecessors, this document was the first time that China publicly unveiled parts of its military strategy.  Even the paper’s title was changed from China’s National Defense to China’s Military Strategy.  Rather than the opaque and retrospective generalities found in earlier versions, the new white paper offered details about China’s strategic intentions and the future development of its military.

One Chinese military official went so far as to state that the greater transparency of the new white paper was a sign of a more confident China.  That said, many of the revelations contained in the document were hardly novel.  It profiled China’s decades-old “active defense” strategy, which maintains that China would always remain strategically defensive–though perhaps not so at the operational or tactical levels.  It also detailed the Chinese military’s primary aim: to prepare itself to fight “local wars under conditions of informationization”—in other words, regional conflicts in which command, control, communications, intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (C4ISR) would play major roles.  That too was already known.[1]

But other revelations in the white paper were more illuminating.  It showed that China intends to focus its force development in four domains: cyberspace (it will boost its cyber warfare capabilities); outer space (it will take steps to defend its interests there, even though it is opposed to the militarization of that domain); nuclear forces (it will build a reliable second-strike capability); and finally the oceans.

Yueyang - China frigate

That last domain is what currently worries China’s neighbors the most, given Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. Indeed, the white paper highlighted Beijing’s intentions to further expand the Chinese navy and extend the range of its operations—shifting from “offshore waters defense” to “open ocean protection.”  The white paper argued that China’s growing overseas interests have changed the country’s focus from being a continental land power to a maritime power.  That has led China to prioritize its navy in its military modernization plans.  In what once would have been heresy in the Chinese military, the white paper declared that “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned.”[2]

That means that in the future China would not only defend its coastline from attack, but also its sea lanes of communications through international shipping routes, including those from the Middle East through which over half of China’s oil flows.  That, in turn, means countries like India will have to get used to seeing more of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean.  By the same token, Japan and the United States should expect more Chinese naval and air patrols in the Pacific Ocean and maybe one or two more Chinese aircraft carriers.

The white paper also listed China’s strategic concerns.  Chief among them was America’s “rebalance” toward Asia, under which the United States has increased its military presence and strengthened its alliances in the region.  The white paper also noted Japan’s push to revise its military and security policies, characterizing them as “sparing no effort to dodge the post-war mechanism.”  China’s “offshore neighbors” warranted mention too for their “provocative actions [to] reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied,” no doubt referring to the Philippines and Vietnam in the Spratly Islands.

While the white paper’s greater transparency may be the product of a more confident China, it is still a country that has not escaped the classic security dilemma.  As the white paper itself observes, China’s neighbors are rearming and helping the United States bolster its security alliances.  So, even as China strives to improve its security, it has prompted its neighbors to seek ways to improve their security situations, thereby reducing the effectiveness of its own efforts.  That is something that China’s military strategy probably did not intend.

[1] “China sticks to ‘active defense’ strategy,” interviewee Senior Captain Zhang Junshe, Vice President of the China Naval Research Institute, China 24, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015,  http://english.cntv.cn/2015/05/27/VIDE1432675208303328.shtml; “White Paper highlights ‘active’ defense strategy,” interviewee Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, China Ministry of National Defense, host Han Bin, China 24, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015, http://english.cntv.cn/2015/05/26/VIDE1432614727198411.shtml.

[2] China’s Military Strategy (Beijing: State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, May 2015); “China’s defense white paper,” interviewee Senior Captain Zhang Junshe, Vice President of the China Naval Research Institute, host Wang Yizhi, Dialogue, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015, http://english.cntv.cn/2015/05/27/VIDE1432668717544907.shtml.

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Ready for a Fight?: How America Could Respond to a South China Sea Crisis

Last Monday, an American littoral combat ship, the Fort Worth (pictured below), sailed just over 12 nautical miles from some of the artificial islands that China has built from reclaimed land in the South China Sea.  While the U.S. Navy has conducted such transits before to ensure freedom of navigation through the region, it was the first time that a U.S. warship came so close to Chinese-held islands.  The transit was part of a stepped-up American effort to deter China from asserting its claims in the Spratly Islands too aggressively.  That effort has included openly questioning China’s maritime claims in December 2014 and encouraging Japan to take a bigger security role in the region earlier this year.

USS Fort Worth - Littoral Combat Ship

Last week, the United States also revealed that it is considering sending its ships and surveillance aircraft within 12 nautical miles—the internationally-recognized territorial zone around natural islands—of China’s newly-built islands, which the U.S. does not regard as natural.  If that happens, an incident between U.S. and Chinese forces may well take place.

Currently the Fort Worth, based in Singapore, is the only U.S. warship whose homeport is anywhere near the Spratly Islands.  While the U.S. Navy plans to eventually base four littoral combat ships in Singapore, when that might happen is not yet known.  In the meantime, America’s thin grey-hulled line in the South China Sea will be very thin indeed.

Thus, the Pentagon must consider how it would respond to a crisis there if one should occur.  Broadly speaking, the U.S. Navy expects to flow forces into the region from other areas around the world.  But to reach the South China Sea, those forces would have to pass through or near a number of choke points.  Those choke points would be natural places where China could intercept U.S. forces.

South China Sea - U.S. Navy

The U.S. 7th Fleet, based in Japan, would be the closest reinforcements that the United States could dispatch.  It would also be the most susceptible to Chinese interception.  To reach the South China Sea it would likely sail down the eastern flank of the Ryukyu Islands and through the Luzon Strait.   On the way it would pass the Miyako Strait, through which submarines and warships of China’s East Sea Fleet are known to sortie into the Pacific Ocean.  Then, as the U.S. fleet passes through the Luzon Strait, it would face the full brunt of Chinese naval and air forces stationed along China’s southern coast, including the main bases of China’s South Sea Fleet at Zhanjiang and Yalong Bay.  While the Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarines sailing underwater from Guam may avoid Chinese air power, both U.S. surface and subsurface forces would likely encounter Chinese submarines in the confined spaces of the Luzon Strait and in the waters near the Paracel Islands.

The U.S. 5th Fleet, normally operating near the Persian Gulf, would be the next closest source of reinforcements.  Its principal challenge to reach the South China Sea would be to sail unfettered through the long and narrow Malacca Strait.  There, Singapore’s capable navy and air force could play a vital role in keeping watch for Chinese aircraft and submarines, even if it did not want to directly involve itself in the dispute.

The last forces to arrive might deploy from as far as Hawaii or the U.S. West Coast.  They would be largely drawn from the U.S. 3rd Fleet.  Those forces may choose to eschew the Luzon Strait altogether and support operations in the South China Sea from the Sulu or Celebes Seas.  There, they could operate in relative safety, though still within range of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles.  At least the mountains of Palawan Island would degrade the ability of Chinese land-based high-frequency direction-finding equipment and over-the-horizon radar to accurately target U.S. forces.  Resupply, particularly of ordinance, could be routed by air through Zamboanga (where U.S. Special Forces have operated for about a decade) or by ship through Davao or Koror.

All of which is to say that the success (or failure) of an American response to a crisis in the South China Sea depends, in no small part, to what happens in and near those straits, and that those straits should be very much present in the minds of U.S. naval commanders.  They also remind us of the abiding importance of geography, even in naval warfare.

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Japan’s Security Role in Southeast Asia (and the South China Sea)

Only a few years ago, it would have seemed inconceivable that Japan would have any security role outside of Japanese territorial waters.  But in a January 2015 interview, Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, related that Washington would welcome Japanese maritime air patrols in the South China Sea.  He said that they could help to stabilize the region by balancing China’s growing naval strength there.  That broke a long-standing taboo in Japan on public discussion of such uses for the Japanese armed forces.  While it still may be some time before Japan mounts maritime air patrols over the South China Sea, yesterday it held an historic naval exercise in those waters.

It was the first time Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force ever conducted a bilateral exercise with the Philippines.  Two Japanese destroyers and a Philippine corvette practiced how to deal with “unplanned encounters at sea.”  They exercised near Subic Bay, a big Philippine (and former U.S.) naval base that is only 260 km from Scarborough Shoal—the spot where Chinese and Philippine patrol boats were locked in a months-long standoff in 2012 and where the Chinese coast guard used a water cannon to drive away Filipino fishermen just last month.[1]

Even before the naval exercise, the Japanese and Philippine coast guards held a smaller drill in Manila Bay a week ago.  Later this year, Japan will deliver the first of ten offshore patrol boats that it promised the Philippines in 2013.  Manila plans to use them to better monitor its territorial waters in the South China Sea and prevent intrusions into them.  Security ties between the two countries have grown substantially.  Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe invited Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to Tokyo to discuss greater security cooperation.  At the time, Aquino went so far as to say that “nations of goodwill can only benefit if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others… especially in the area of collective self-defense,” giving a nod to Abe’s efforts to loosen Japan’s constitutional constraints that prevent his country from defending allies under attack.[2]

South China Sea - Japan

Japan has also expanded its security activities with other Southeast Asian countries.  Early this year, it mended ties with Thailand, whose coup led to a surge of Chinese influence there and strained relations with its longtime ally, the United States.  In March, Japan signed an accord with Indonesia to enhance military exchanges and collaboration on defense equipment development.  And Japan has steadily expanded its military cooperation with Vietnam, another claimant in the South China Sea dispute.  Japan promised it offshore patrol boats too.  In fact, immediately after the Japanese coast guard finished its drill in the Philippines last week, one of its cutters proceeded to Vietnam to participate in an exercise there.[3]  Japan has clearly sought a greater role in the security of the region.

Nonetheless, there is a question of whether Japan’s military can sustain a wider role.  Contrary to China’s claims, Japan’s defense budget has not grown much.  It rose less than three percent in the last year (and not at all in U.S. dollar terms).  Any real expansion of Japanese military presence in Southeast Asia will have to run on a shoestring until Tokyo can afford a true increase in military spending.  That is not to say Japan is without options.  Its new long-range P-1 maritime patrol aircraft would be useful for patrols over the South China Sea.  Moreover, Japan could enlarge its navy by simply slowing the pace at which it decommissions older warships, many of which are still highly capable.  But there are limits too.  Keeping older warships in service entails higher maintenance costs which may crowd out investment in new weapon systems.

As Japan expands its security role in Southeast Asia, new questions will arise.  Foremost among them is whether Japan’s new role will lead to greater stability or instability?  On the one hand, the absence of an adequately balancing force in Southeast Asia has given China a free hand to assert itself in the South China Sea, as marked by its massive land reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands.  Given how grindingly slow America’s rebalance to Asia has been, Japan’s security support could be just what the region needs.

On the other hand, any minor incident between Chinese and Japanese forces in the South China Sea could easily escalate tensions between their two countries.  Anyone who remembers the accidental collision between an American EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese J-8 fighter in 2001 can imagine how a similar incident between Japanese reconnaissance aircraft and intercepting Chinese fighters could spiral into a major crisis.  Let us hope deterrence prevails.

[1] Mynardo Macaraig, “Philippines and Japan hold historic naval drills in flashpoint waters,” AFP News, May 12, 2015; Manuel Mogato, Adam Rose, and Ben Blanchard, “Philippines, Japan coast guards hold anti-piracy drills,” Reuters, May 6, 2015.

[2] Louis Bacani, “Aquino: Beneficial if Japan can defend allies under attack,” Philstar.com, Jun. 24, 2014, http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2014/06/24/1338501/aquino-beneficial-if-japan-can-defend-allies-under-attack.

[3] Rosemarie Francisco, Manuel Mogato, Linda Sieg, Tim Kelly, and Nobuhiro Kubo, “Japan steps up maritime engagement with Philippines, Vietnam,” Reuters, May 12, 2015; “Japan – Indonesia Joint Statement: Towards Further Strengthening of the Strategic Partnership Underpinned by Sea and Democracy,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Mar. 23, 2015; Mitsuru Obe, “Japan Reaffirms Economic Ties With Thailand,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 9, 2015; Bagus BT Saragih, “Indonesia and Japan improve military ties,” Jakarta Post, Jan. 30 2013.

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