Indonesian President Joko Widodo during a visit to a military base in the Natuna islands during a standoff with Chinese vessels in the maritime area on January 8, 2020. Photo: Handout / Indonesian Presidential Palace / AFP

Indonesia’s non-alignment status is about to be sorely tested. The stated purpose of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s upcoming visit is to discuss how Indonesia and the US can cooperate toward a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” the US construct to contain the “China threat.”

The US has been pressing many Southeast Asian states to join it in its efforts to contain China politically and militarily. Indonesia, the de facto leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, can show the way for the other members of the bloc by “just saying no” to requests from both the US and China that it judges contrary to its interests.

Indonesia recently rejected a US request to refuel and service America’s intelligence-collection planes targeting China. This comports with Jakarta’s non-aligned policy and its expressed desire to stay neutral in the US-China struggle for regional dominance. But the US is nothing if not persistent.

Indonesia has said “no” to China as well. In December 2019 when 63 Chinese fishing boats accompanied by three Coast Guard vessels entered Indonesia’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off Natuna, Jakarta protested vehemently and even sent warships and jet fighters to the area.

Jakarta has also rebuffed China’s claim to certain rights in Indonesia’s EEZ as well as Beijing’s offer to discuss the issue, saying there is nothing to discuss because China’s claims are invalid.

The latest pressure from the US comes in the context of several in-your-face anti-China statements on the South China Sea by Pompeo. In essence he seems to be saying “you are with us or against us.” The US has also ramped up its military posture in the South China Sea to show it means business. China has responded in kind and more, both diplomatically and militarily, and the contest for the hearts and minds of Southeast Asian countries has reached a new level of intensity.

The US flies thousands of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions every year in the South China Sea and along China’s coasts. These probes have increased markedly this year, with 36 in May, 49 in June and 67 in July.

Some fly out of the Philippines and Singapore. Malaysia has offered access for refueling US spy planes in Labuan. Despite denials, these countries are decidedly aligned in China’s eyes and thus are potential targets in a US-China military conflict.

Taiwan regularly gathers aerial intelligence over the East and South China Seas. The US is also considering supplying Vietnam with ISR planes that Hanoi will likely use to monitor Chinese activities and share the results.

These ISR probes are not just irritating “flies at a picnic,” as one Chinese military spokesman once described them. They are serious business. They probe China’s defenses on its occupied features in the South China Sea and along its coast searching for weaknesses.

Some of them target China’s nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines that are based at Yulin on Hainan and try to hide in the deep South China Sea. For China these submarines – and thus the probes to detect and potentially target them – have existential significance and consequences. They are China’s insurance against a first strike, something the US, unlike China, has not disavowed.

According to Peking University’s South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI), US Air Force electronic-intelligence aircraft have used identification codes assigned to Malaysian and Philippines civilian aircraft. If true, this is an unsafe practice and a violation of international norms.

It also puts the Philippines and Malaysia in a quandary. Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr worried that the incident could “incriminate” Manila and requested an explanation from the US Embassy.

Facilitation of US intelligence probes against China only draws these countries deeper into the divide. For example, Malaysia has tried to hedge militarily between the two by allowing Chinese submarines and their escorts to refuel at Sepanggar Naval Base in Sabah. It said it was standard international procedure to welcome visits by foreign naval vessels “based on each nation’s request and upon diplomatic clearance.”

In the bigger picture, the US is trying to expand and enhance its China-containment perimeter and associated net of intelligence collection over the sea bordering China’s vulnerable underbelly.

The Philippines and Thailand are still US allies and facilitate US strategy by providing “places” for US military assets. Royal Thai Air Force bases are an important element in the Pentagon’s “forward positioning” strategy. Despite an on-again-off-again agreement between the US and the Philippines, there is a continuing US military presence at five bases there, including some near the South China Sea.

Malaysia’s Butterworth Royal Air force Base is used by US ally Australia and is the headquarters of the Five Power Defense Arrangements’ Integrated Area Defense System. This arrangement also includes US ally the UK, and Singapore. In this context, it is no coincidence that another US ally, Japan, is improving its defense ties with Vietnam and Indonesia.

The US has also made headway with non-aligned India regarding the South China Sea. India has allowed the US to refuel and obtain logistics support for an armed Poseidon P8 at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. It is not clear if this was a one-off or the beginning of a pattern.

Given the resurgence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – a clearly anti-China grouping – it may well be the latter. If so, China will likely consider that by its actions India is for practical purposes no longer “non-aligned.”

Now the US is leaning on Indonesia to join this anti-China containment club. As an indication of its need for partners in this endeavor, it waived its ban on Indonesian Defense Minister Probowo Subianto for human-rights violations by inviting him to Washington to discuss defense cooperation.

But Washington’s request to Jakarta regarding US spy planes was a bad idea because it opened the door for Indonesia to set an example on how to deal with the big powers. Greg Poling, an “expert” on the South China Sea at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the request was “an indication of how little folks in the US government understand Indonesia.”

There have been obvious signals that Indonesia would decline such a US request to aid it military, especially if it involved troops or assets on its soil. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has said, “We don’t want to get trapped by [the US-China] rivalry.”

Despite their profession of neutrality regarding the US-China struggle for dominance in the region, some ASEAN members are in essence aiding and abetting the US in its efforts to contain China. They may be fooling their publics, but they are not fooling the main protagonists, whose military strategists consider them either for or against them.

Indonesia is clearly still non-aligned. If it stays this way, ASEAN members should follow its lead.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.