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A Minilateral Defence Triad Between Indonesia, Australia, and India?

21 Jul 2023
By Anondeeta Chakraborty
The Indian Navy Deepak-class fleet tanker INS Shakti (A 57), left, conducts a replenishment-at-sea with the Royal Australian Navy Anzac-class frigate HMAS Ballarat (FFH 155) during Malabar 2020. Source:  Defense Visual Information Distribution Service/

China’s incursions into Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone have underscored the threat to the country’s interests. While a quiet military modernisation has been ongoing, Indonesia would be served by joining India and Australia in a trilateral defence agreement.  

The 2nd round of the Indonesia, Australia, and India trilateral meeting at the foreign ministerial level has resurfaced the need for a Joint Defence Partnership between the countries. Despite the talks seeing a virtual beginning in 2020, it took two years for the countries to witness any tangible progress. The QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) membership of Australia and India has been a particular irritant for Indonesia. But the strategic insecurity that Indonesia finds itself in demands a change in that perception.

Indonesia historically does not have any “official” dispute with China. In recent years, however, leaders in Beijing have been determined to keep Indonesia from exploring oil and natural gas in the North Natuna Islands, with repeated incursions prompting Indonesia to send warships into the region. In 2022, the Indonesian Foreign Minister sent an official letter to the United Nations stating that Chinese claims on the Nine Dash Line were jeopardizing Indonesian economic interests. Despite a cordial bilateral relationship with China, there are explicit signs of Indonesia getting jittery about Beijing.

As for US involvement in the region, Indonesia has always viewed American intentions with apprehension. It is not eager to be a part of a neighbourhood under US influence. The perception among Indonesia’s security elite, coupled with its troubled past with the US, has led many in government to view Washington as yet another meddling power rather than a regional security provider. Despite the prevalence of that perception, Indonesia has been a benefactor of America’s balancing against China in the region.

In 2021, Indonesia unveiled its ambitious plan for military modernisation. It has been actively seeking to diversify its strategic partnerships with a host of countries in the region. Following the Chinese incursion in and around the Natuna Islands, Jakarta has planned to substantially expand its submarine and corvette fleet in collaboration with South Korea and Japan.  It has also been warming up to the West, procuring Rafale fighter jets from France and strengthening defence ties with Germany. Additionally, Indonesia has been beefing up its indigenous defence procurements.

A volatile neighbourhood and an aggressive China have intensified Jakarta’s strategic insecurity. Indonesia acknowledges that mere military modernisation or diversifying defence procurement alone will not be enough to deter the growing security threat. To hedge, then, against these threats, it has been cosying up with US allies and partners like Australia and India.

Australia’s greater shift towards the US amid growing tensions with China, and the subsequent AUKUS deal (including Great Britain), has challenged the bilateral relationship. But that equation is gradually altering. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit to Jakarta in 2022 was fruitful, both in terms of economic and security cooperation. The prospect that a defence agreement may be in the offing is a particularly notable development. In recent years, personnel-level defence coordination from military training to joint exercises between the two states has also been bolstered.

Indonesia has been deepening its defence ties with India as well. Until 2018, engagements between the two countries mostly hovered around economic exchange. The sharpening of the relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2018 between Jakarta and New Delhi has opened new and diverse horizons for security collaboration and partnership. Bilateral naval exercises, like Samudrasakti, and Indonesia’s decisions to procure BrahMos missles and defence technologies from India are illustrative of how fast the relationship between India and Indonesia has been maturing.

Complementing these developing strategic bilateral relations, a minilateral defense arrangement with both India and Australia would further serve Indonesia’s security interests. Up until 2020, the QUAD membership of Australia and India had prevented Indonesia from formalising the trilateral mechanism between these three countries – a move that might have irked China. However, in 2022, former Indonesian commander Andika Peraska was in favour of a new partnership with the QUAD. This illustrates that powerful voices among the military elite in Indonesia are growing more comfortable with the idea of collaborating with US allies and partners to insure itself against the growing strategic risks in the region.

While Indonesia has been able to engage with India bilaterally on a strategic level, such engagements with Australia have yet to materialise. Australia cannot afford to have a difficult neighbourhood should its fallout with China deepen. It has been taking mini steps, like enhancing economic engagement and removing Visa barriers for Indonesia citizens.

India can act as a brokering power in this trilateral potential, identifying shared interests and threats, for instance, that will help to build mutual trust. Given its historically trusting relationship with Indonesia and its increasingly warm ties with Australia, India can leverage its position to foster greater security engagement between Canberra and Jakarta. A defence partnership no matter how low scale would be beneficial for Indonesia, which is simply running out of time to catch up with the security demands of a volatile neighbourhood.

The program of the 2023 trilateral meeting between Indonesia, Australia, and India is more reticent, than forthcoming, about its intentions. The tweets by the Indian foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, suggest that the three countries have “plenty to agree” on. This might be a veiled reference to the mutual threat that these three major Indo-Pacific players are facing. A Trilateral defence arrangement would be one of the most pragmatic approaches to address the mutual security threats.

Anondeeta Chakraborty is a postgraduate student at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.