France and Indonesia signed a deal this month for 42 Rafale fighter jets, making it the first operator of the French-built planes in Southeast Asia and pushing the United States to sweeten its offers of military aircraft.
Indonesia placed an initial order for six aircraft, with 36 aircraft plus munitions and simulators to be delivered in the future. Almost immediately after securing the deal with France, the US State Department granted approval for Indonesia to buy F-15 fighters, which would make it the second F-15 operator in the region along with Singapore.
The US approved the sale of up to 36 high-end F-15EX Eagle II fighters, which if Indonesia purchases would complement its existing F-16 fleet.
These fighter deals came after Indonesia rejected plans to buy Su-35 fighters from Russia, despite operating Su-27 and Su-30 jets. This decision was seen to be influenced by the threat of US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
Indonesia is on a military modernization program spurred on by China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. While Indonesia is not a direct claimant in the region’s territorial disputes, China’s increasingly assertive behavior around the Natuna Islands, which is at the southernmost point of its nine-dash line, has made Indonesia wary.
While China does not claim the Natuna Islands, it asserts that the waters surrounding them are part of its “traditional fishing grounds.”
Indonesia’s order for the Rafale fighters and getting US permission to buy the F-15s could have far-reaching strategic implications, aside from addressing the potential military threat from China.
The deals reflect Indonesia’s desire to maintain its strategic independence, the limitations of the Quad alliance and France’s efforts to project itself as an independent global power.
Indonesia pursues an independent and active foreign policy. This means Indonesia needs to build its defense capabilities without becoming too reliant on one source.
Jakarta learned this the hard way in the 1990s when the US enacted an arms embargo on it over human rights abuses in East Timor, rendering Indonesia’s US-built F-16 fleet inoperable.
Arms sales are founded on the premise that buyers join a logistics chain dominated by the selling state in exchange for better maintenance, technical support, availability of weapons for future purchases and better pricing.
However, this implies that client states surrender large parts of their foreign and defense policy to the seller state’s interests.
Indonesia is aware of these attached strings, and it thus has a diversified defense procurement program. It operates both US and Russian fighter jets, South Korean subs, Dutch frigates and Chinese anti-ship missiles.
However, this also raises interoperability concerns between equipment. It would also require separate training and maintenance programs, which can raise complexity and costs.
America’s approval of F-15 sales to Indonesia may also reflect Washington’s approach to arming Southeast Asian frontline states in a bid to balance against China in view of the Quad’s limitations.
India’s concerns about being reduced to a subordinate US ally and its shared border with China prevent it from committing wholeheartedly to the Quad. Political reservations about increasing Japan’s military footprint in the Pacific may be a restraining factor for its Quad involvement.
Also, Australia’s vulnerability to economic retaliation from China may force it to think twice before going all-in with the Quad.
An alternative way to circumvent these limitations is to arm frontline Southeast Asian states to balance off against China’s military in the South China Sea. US F-15 sales to Indonesia can bolster Jakarta’s posture against China independently from the Quad alliance.
This sale could also deepen Indonesia’s defense cooperation with other F-15 users in Asia, such as Singapore, Japan and South Korea.
At the same time, France’s sale of Rafale jets to Indonesia reflects Paris’ desire to establish security partnerships independent of the US and to project France as a global defense player. As with India, France is wary about being reduced to a US strategic dependent and aims to avoid this through asserting national self-determination in diplomatic, economic and military terms.
France’s fighter jet sale to Indonesia, coupled with its previous sale of these jets to India, allows it to further extend its political and military influence into the Pacific. It also positions France as an alternative supplier of high-end NATO-standard equipment from the US, as France has fewer conditions attached to its weapons sales.
The fighter jet sale will also enable France to create a network of security partners independent from the US, which also plays into France’s efforts to achieve strategic independence, as the Rafale jets may become centerpieces of trilateral France-India-Indonesia defense cooperation in the future.