MACK WILLIAMS. Joint patrols with Indonesia in the South China Sea?

Mar 8, 2017

Has Foreign Minister Bishop finally been able to kill off the proposed joint Australia: Indonesia patrols in the South China Sea ?  

Around the time of the joint ministerial talks Ministers Bishop and Payne held with their Indonesian counterparts in October last year in Jakarta there was a flurry of reporting about possible agreement on joint naval patrols between the two navies in the South China Sea. At the time I reported in this blog that Defence Minister Payne had stated that Australia and Indonesia were actively considering “coordinated activities in the South China Sea and Sulu Sea”.

I pointed out that the contentious area between Indonesia and China was in the South China Sea around the Natuna Islands and nowhere near the Sulu Sea which sits between the Philippines islands of Palawan and Mindanao. And that if operations were being considered there then surely the Philippines would have needed to be consulted. In ensuing days there continued to be positive comments on the Australian side about what at one stage were being called “peace patrols”.

Meanwhile the Indonesians were going to lengths to explain that Indonesia was not a claimant state in the South China Sea dispute and that its concerns were about foreign fishing boats in the Natuna Islands. These had been both Chinese and Vietnamese. Senior military and political leaders also came out against suggestions of joint naval patrols with Australia. The Sulu Sea also soon dropped off the table in continuing comment. All of this left the impression that one of the goals in Minister Payne’s brief was to reach agreement on the proposal and have it as a major “announcable” from the visit.

So when The Australian revisited the proposal again on the eve of President Widodo’s brief weekend visit with the all too familiar Australian commentators megaphoning it as big step forward in our defence relationships with Indonesia one had to wonder what games were being played. In any event clearly it did not take long for the Indonesians to demand a correction. That was provided by Foreign Minister Bishop soon after her own arrival in Indonesia in preparation for the Prime Minister’s visit.

If this proved to be yet another attempt to inveigle the Indonesians into allowing us to join them in some defence activity in the South China Sea it displayed a very poor understanding of the delicate role Indonesia is trying to play in meeting pressures from both China and the United States in the region. Hopefully Ms Bishop’s statement should now kill off this proposal.

Mack Williams was a senior diplomat and a former Ambassador to the Philippines. 

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