‘AUKUS created for fighting’: Push for Indonesia to refuse access to subs

Singapore/Jakarta: A senior Indonesian official says the country’s sea lanes should not be used by Australian nuclear-propelled submarines because “AUKUS was created for fighting”.

Blindsided by the original announcement of the AUKUS agreement in September 2021, Indonesia had warned Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines could instigate a regional arms race that would heighten tensions in the Indo-Pacific.

Indonesian navy crew members look over Indonesian waters. Credit:AP

On Tuesday, South-east Asia’s largest nation was the first in the region to react to the detailing of Australia’s $368 billion submarine plans, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese attempting to soften the blow with an early phone call to Indonesia President Joko Widodo amid a blitz of briefings of world leaders.

“Indonesia has been closely watching the AUKUS security partnership cooperation, particularly the announcement regarding the path AUKUS will take to reach a critical AUKUS capability level,” the Indonesian Foreign Ministry said.

“Maintaining peace and stability in the region is the responsibility of all countries. It is critical for all countries to be a part of this effort.

“Indonesia expects Australia to remain consistent in fulfilling its obligations under the NPT [Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons] and IAEA safeguards, as well as to develop with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] a verification mechanism that is effective, transparent and non-discriminatory.”

A US-made Virginia-class attack submarine.Credit:US Navy

Indonesia’s anxiety is indicative of both its desire not to choose sides in the geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States and its allies, and a wariness associated with its physical location, which means the submarines will inevitably have to pass close to its waters.

Jakarta is yet to decide whether the submarines would be permitted to travel inside its maritime territory. If it does allow them, it is expected it would only be on the surface, not submerged, but there is a strong push against it.

“Indonesia’s standpoint is clear that [our archipelagic sea lanes] cannot be used for activities related to war or preparation of war or non-peaceful activities,” said Tubagus Hasanuddin, a senior member of the ruling Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and of Indonesia’s parliamentary committee overseeing foreign affairs, defence, and intelligence.

“Now about AUKUS. It is not a [forum] for training, it is like a defence pact, just like NATO but of a smaller scale, [created] to face the Chinese activities in the Pacific. It means the vessels are the inseparable parts of AUKUS.

“It definitely is related head-to-head [rivalry] with the Chinese maritime powers. It means it is not a peaceful means so that Indonesia will reject [them sailing through its waters].”

Hasanuddin, a retired two-star army general, added in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age: ”As long [vessels are] made not for war, it is no problem. For instance, the [US] Seventh Fleet passes for patrol, for exercises, it is no problem. But AUKUS is created for fighting.”

Muhadi Sugiono, an international relations expert at Indonesia’s Gadjah Mada University, also believes the submarines should be denied access under the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty even though they will not be armed with nuclear weapons.

“It is not categorised as a nuclear weapon but it is related to war equipment,” he said. “The nuclear fuel for the subs is of weapons grade.”

Australia’s submarine ambitions have better received by the likes of Singapore and the Philippines over the past 18 months but Malaysia has also expressed concerns during that time about the prospect of extra firepower in its vicinity.

Gilang Kembara, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, believes Jakarta’s response on Tuesday reflected more acceptance of the much-vaunted technology transfer.

“As long as the three countries respect international laws, there should be no [serious] impacts, as long as all is carried out in a transparent manner,” he said.

But while the Australian government’s efforts to consult Widodo, as well as other regional leaders, may have helped tone down Indonesia’s official rhetoric, apprehension remains.

“While it’s unlikely that the Albanese government’s consultations with regional countries will have changed their minds about AUKUS, it should help prevent the very negative initial response from Indonesia in 2021,” said Susannah Patton, the South-East Asia program director at the Lowy Institute.

“Indonesia expects to be consulted on major defence and security announcements.”

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