Joint US-Indonesia war games are set to expand to 14 nations as tensions simmer in the Indo-Pacific

Troops from the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Canada will take part in Garuda Shield 2022 exercises from Aug. 1 to 14, the army said. The 16th edition of the War Games will include live-fire exercises, special operations and aviation components, among other things, she added.

The expansion of exercises comes at a time of simmering tensions in the region, with analysts saying the move signals Indonesia is closer to the US than China on military cooperation.

Last year’s Garuda Shield involved two U.S. Army divisions — about 1,000 troops — along with their Indonesian counterparts, in what the U.S. Army says is the largest edition of the war games to date.

“The two-week joint exercise Garuda Shield continues to solidify the U.S.-Indonesia partnership and advances cooperation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” the U.S. Army said in a statement ahead of last year’s exercises.

Indonesia did not provide an estimate of how many troops from each of the 14 countries would participate in this year’s Garuda Shield.

The US military and the US embassy in Jakarta initially did not comment on the exercises.

Disputes in the South China Sea

Indonesia lies on the southern edge of the South China Sea, which has been a hotbed of military activity in recent years as China has militarized disputed islands there and the US and its partners have challenged those claims.
In March, China’s state tabloid Global Times accused US Admiral John Aquilino, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, of attempting to copy the Ukraine crisis in the Asia-Pacific region and targeting allies, partners and other countries in the region mobilize to confront China.

The Global Times comments came after Aquilino took journalists on a flight across the South China Sea to highlight Beijing’s militarization of the disputed islands.

Analysts say Indonesia has long tried to avoid taking sides in the US-China dispute in the South China Sea.
However, they note that over the past year Beijing has been enforcing its claims near the Natuna Islands, in an area within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone but also within China’s “nine-dash line,” under which Beijing controls almost the entire south is claimed by the China Sea.
Colonel Frega Wenas Inkiriwang, commander of the North Jakarta Military District and a lecturer at the Indonesia Defense University, said China’s current behavior is increasing the risk of conflict in the region as nations increase their military presence, including Indonesia, which has strengthened its armed forces around the Natuna Islands .

But don’t expect Jakarta to call Beijing directly, said Collin Koh, a research fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Indonesia “can avoid megaphone diplomacy and confront China head-on over the South China Sea issues, but it will take actions that subtly signal to Beijing — and to domestic audiences at home — its desire to safeguard its national interests,” it said koh

He called the expansion of the Garuda Shield war games “particularly noteworthy” given that “Indonesia is always cautious about signaling where sensitivities are at stake over the South China Sea issues” and its relationship with the United States and China.

“Indonesia clearly wants to commit to external reconciliation in the South China Sea while using this as a platform to project its stature and influence in terms of multilateral defense diplomacy,” Koh said.

Frega noted that Indonesia and China once held joint military drills called “Sharp Knife,” but the latest iteration of it was in 2014.

Now, he said, Indonesia is significantly closer to the US than China in terms of military cooperation.

Frega also said that Indonesia has long had close military ties with Japan and Australia, so their inclusion in Garuda Shield 2022 should come as no surprise.

But he said that because Japan and Australia, like the US, are highly critical of China’s actions in the South China Sea, news of the August drills in Beijing could be expected to be “uncomfortably received.”

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