Global tension sparks ‘line of fire’ warning

Dian Septiari, The Australian
Wednesday June 29 2022

Jakarta Heightened global and regional tensions have prompted warnings that three key Indonesian waterways connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans could end up “in the line of fire” should conflict erupt between the US and China, bringing billions of dollars in global shipping trade to a halt.

Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto alluded to such concerns earlier this month when he said decades of peace and stability in Southeast Asia, in which it has been surrounded by friendly neighbours, had led to a degree of complacency in Indonesia about its own security. “The situation in Ukraine taught us (that) we can never take our security and independence for granted,” he told the Singapore hosted Shangri-La Dialogue defence summit, echoing warnings by senior Japanese, US and Australian officials that a “Black Sea-style blockade” in the South China Sea or elsewhere in Asia was now a real threat.

Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago nation, controls the Sunda and Lombok straits and co-manages the Malacca Strait with Malaysia. Hundreds of thousands of ships pass through the three critical waterways annually, providing maritime access for many countries, including Australia, which is heavily reliant on the Indonesian straits for import and export shipments. But recent developments – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the AUKUS security partnership, the rising possibility of China moving against Taiwan and the simmering risks of maritime incidents in the South China Sea – have increased Indonesian fears of a possible conflict among superpowers within its waters.

“What do these things have to do with the straits? They have strategic roles because [if conflict breaks, the straits] would be where the warships pass through,” Indonesian defence analyst Curie Maharani Savitri told The Australian. In a time of conflict, China could conceivably block one of the straits to restrain rival forces coming from the south, the US and its allies could also do so to hold China’s main logistical line, while India could use the straits to prevent China projecting power into the Indian Ocean, Dr Curie said. In any one of those scenarios “Indonesia would be in a difficult position” because under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea a neutral state cannot close its straits.

But if the straits remained open “there is a possibility that [fighting] would spill over from the combat area” into Indonesian waters “because we are in the line of fire”. Coercive diplomacy could also be used by belligerent countries to force Indonesia to open its straits for the projection of their power against their enemies.

Aristyo Darmawan, an international law lecturer at the University of Indonesia, said Indonesians had long assumed the straits would remain open, and that it would be impossible for anyone to seize them due to their importance to world trade. “But in recent years there has been a lot of literature from India, written by retired admirals and retired policymakers, in which they are planning to close the Strait of Malacca in the event of a conflict with China … with backing from the US,” he said. India, with the US, Japan and Australia, is a member of the Quad security group that is widely viewed in Southeast Asia as seeking to contain the rise of China.

Mr Aristyo said Indonesia was “less likely” to block the straits because of its commitment to an independent foreign policy doctrine, despite precedents set by Egypt – which blockaded the Straits of Tiran in 1967 to stop Israel’s access to the Red Sea – and Iran, which repeatedly threatens to block the Strait of Hormuz.

In recent years, Indonesia has pushed for the adoption of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo- Pacific, which promotes a more inclusive approach to the regional maritime domain that does not seek to alienate China.

During German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s visit this month, Indonesian President Joko Widodo pushed for a strengthening of IndoPacific cooperation while reiterating “the importance of regional architecture that is inclusive, that puts forward the spirit of collaboration and not containment in the region”.

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi also warned that the conflict in Ukraine had exposed the weakness of post-World War II security architecture that was dominated by a containment approach.

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