The fuss made at Friday’s Quad meeting in Melbourne is quite out of proportion to the importance of the group. Australians should not be comforted by rhetoric about democratic solidarity and shared values. The ties that hold together the quadrilateral relationship between the United States, Japan, Australia and India are paper thin when it comes to China, the main security challenge they face. The four members are geographically dispersed, their security interests diverge wildly, and each has an important economic relationship with Beijing to protect. India will not come to Japan’s aid in the event of a security dispute with China, and Japan would not do much to help India. And Australians, prepare for a shock: if we ever get into a fire war with China, Japan and India won’t be there for us either.
Australia should look much closer to home, to the one country that shares Australia’s strategic geography and could act as its great power partner and protector. Any threat to Australia’s security emanating from China must pass through Indonesia, meaning Jakarta should be at the center of its security diplomacy.
Indonesia’s air combat force is currently centered on 33 aging F-16 fighters and 16 Russian Sukhoi variants, leaving the air force to maintain only a fledgling air combat capability.
Last week, Indonesia made a big statement of intent regarding its security. The news that Jakarta will buy 42 French Rafale fighter jets and that the United States has approved the sale* of 36 American F-15 Advanced Eagle fighters represents a serious investment in air power. In fact, if the order is delivered in its entirety (and you can never be sure when it comes to Indonesian military purchases), it’s something of a sea change.
Despite being the most populous nation in Southeast Asia and the natural diplomatic leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in terms of air combat capability, Indonesia has since long a second-tier power in the region. Australia and Singapore make up the first tier, with Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia having roughly equivalent capabilities. Indonesia’s air combat force is currently centered on 33 aging F-16 fighters and 16 Russian Sukhoi variants, giving the air force only a nascent air combat capability.
If both of these agreements are delivered in full and the aircraft are well supported by highly trained aircrews and a new generation of support aircraft (e.g. aerial tankers and airborne early warning aircraft), this will hoist the Indonesia alone in the second rung, the others being demoted. at the third. Nor should we forget Indonesia’s involvement in South Korea’s KF-21 stealth fighter project, which could see an order for up to 50 planes by Jakarta. It bears repeating that Indonesian defense procurement is an uncertain business, so not all of these deals may materialize in full, if at all.
Why did Indonesia make this investment now? The obvious place to look is China, whose rise as a maritime power is creating complications for Indonesia in the South China Sea.
But a simpler explanation is that Indonesia is buying $22 billion worth of fighter jets because it can. Southeast Asian countries modernized their military forces long before China beefed up its military, largely because as their economies grew, so did government wealth. They could suddenly afford the military tools they had been looking for for a long time.
Inevitably, economic growth will be converted into more military might. This fighter jet deal is just the beginning.
Australia should consider what comes next for the Indonesian military. Indonesia is still a middle-income economy, but it has grown roughly steadily at 5% per year for decades, so it will continue to get richer. There is huge untapped potential in Indonesia – corruption and weak state capacity in areas such as health, education and infrastructure are holding the country back. If he can even partially solve these problems, he will develop even faster.
Not that Australia should assume that Indonesia will become the next Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore. It is possible, but nothing in its history gives us confidence in such a rapid transformation. Yet, given Indonesia’s size – 273 million people – it doesn’t have to be all in place to cast a much bigger shadow over the region. As my colleague Ben Bland told me, think of Indonesia’s development like that of modern India – it will remain weak in some respects, but it will develop enormous strengths in others.
Inevitably, economic growth will be converted into more military might. This fighter jet deal is just the beginning. What should Australia think about this?
Well, let’s first admit there’s nothing in the world Australia can do about it. Whether he feels anxious or relaxed about Indonesia’s ascent, it will happen either way. In turn, this suggests that Australia had better stay on the good side of Indonesia. Fortunately, the two nations have a major interest in common, which is to ensure that China never becomes the dominant power in maritime Southeast Asia. It’s a goal that should bring them much closer to the defense.
* I have already written that Jakarta will “buy” F-15s. Thanks to a reader for the correction.