JAKARTA – Indonesian Navy officers have been left red-faced after what they claimed were two US-made side-scanning radar devices discovered floating off South Sulawesi earlier this month turned out to be tools routinely used by a state-owned surveying company in a seismic search for oil and gas.
In a sign of growing Indonesian sensitivity to big power rivalry in its maritime backyard, local commanders apparently jumped to conclusions because the five-kilogram cylinders were found near the same island a suspected Chinese-made underwater drone surfaced in early 2021.
Days before the discovery was announced, a Chinese warship – which had earlier traversed Indonesian waters – sparked a diplomatic incident by aiming a military-grade laser beam at a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Boeing P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft in the Arafura Sea.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the plane had been “put under threat” by the laser, emanating from a Luyang-class guided-missile destroyer at the approaches to the Torres Strait, the narrow waterway between Australia and Papua New Guinea which opens into the Coral Sea.
The destroyer and a 25,000-ton Yushao-class amphibious transport dock were first detected by a P-8 off the south coast of Java on February 12 as they headed for a rendezvous with a Jiangkai-class frigate and a Fuchi-class replenishment ship south of West Timor.
After sailing through Indonesia’s Makassar Strait, the presence of the second small flotilla had been picked up off the coast of Maluku by the Australian frigate HMAS Arutmin, recently upgraded with a long-range Ceafar radar system allowing it to see deep inside Indonesian waters.
Reacting to the pre-dawn February 17 incident, the Chinese Defense Ministry said the patrol plane had carried out “provocative and dangerous” acts in venturing as close as four kilometers to the Chinese vessels to drop sonar buoys aimed at detecting the presence of submarines.
The Australian Defense Department condemned the “unprofessional and unsafe military conduct” which it said could have endangered the lives of the crewmen aboard the P-8, one of 14 that began entering service with the RAAF in 2016.
For now, most military lasers are invisible and used for range-finding or guiding a weapon to its target. But the version directed against the Australian plane, which has an operating ceiling of 40,000 feet, is known as a dazzler, designed to temporarily blind adversaries or burn sensors.
The use of laser and high-power microwave weapons are only in the early stages of development, but Australian defense analyst Malcolm Davis says the US Navy and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are moving towards deploying an operational solid-state laser on surface combatants.
The cylindrical objects recovered off South Sulawesi’s Selayar Island in early February were identified by their maker, Geospace Technologies, as sealed devices that aid in the recovery of seismic marine streamers accidentally separated from a tow vessel.
Owned by state oil services firm PT Elnusa, the SRD-500S “is not used for any other purpose including sea mapping capabilities,” Geospace said in a statement, dismissing navy assertions that it can be used to survey water temperatures, salinity and currents for anti-submarine operations.
In late 2020, fishermen found a suspected Chinese undersea drone in the same area. Carrying a trailing antenna and with no identifying marks, it was the third found in Indonesian waters in the previous year, although the other finds were not made public.
The Torres Strait off the Gulf of Carpentaria has always been closely-watched, but more so now as Australia – like Indonesia in the North Natuna Sea – pays increased attention to its northern maritime border and concerns over an increased Chinese presence.
The Australians have moved more land and air forces into the Northern Territory in recent years and will eventually take delivery of eight Northrup Grumman Global Hawks, long-range drones capable of staying on patrol for up to 30 hours.
The MQ-4C Triton maritime variant will be stationed at Tindal Airbase, 330 kilometers southeast of Darwin, already home to a squadron of F/A-18 Hornet jets and combat support facilities for visiting US forces on frequent Northern Territory exercises.
Currently in service with only the US and South Korean air forces, the Hawks are expected to work in tandem with the P-8s, which operate out of South Australia’s Edinburgh airbase, but are often deployed elsewhere across Australia.
Their arrival, now delayed until 2024, will enhance the RAAF’s ability to mount extended reconnaissance missions over the Indian Ocean and across the Timor and Arafura seas separating Indonesia’s eastern island chain from Australia.
Defense experts say that could be of benefit to Jakarta, which the Australians already quietly furnish with intelligence the Indonesians don’t have the ability to gather despite major advances they have made in surveilling 6.1 million square kilometers of economic exclusion zone (EEZ).
The Darwin-based Northern Command’s top-secret operations room reportedly boasts giant computer screens of varying scale on which are plotted the real-time location of every nation’s warships extending beyond the Maluku islands into the Western Pacific.
Analysts say the change in defensive posture is based on the fact that Australia’s northern approaches are its most important sea route, with the vast majority of Australian trade coming through Southeast Asia, not the Pacific or Indian oceans.
Any threat to regional stability remains a major concern to the Canberra government, which in August 2018 entered into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Indonesia covering security and all aspects of a historically rocky bilateral relationship.
“This is one reason why geostrategic restiveness in the region is seeing the transformation of the Northern Territory from an ad hoc training ground to a forward operating base and alliance hub,” says Mark Dodd, communications adviser for the Northern Territory National Security Advisory Group.
Pillar Four of the partnership’s 2020-2024 plan of action focuses on maritime cooperation, calling for enhanced naval engagement and improved information sharing, though China is predictably not mentioned and most attention is on transnational crime.
While the two neighbors often engage in diplomatic spats over various issues, defense and security ties are long-standing and much less acrimonious, shown in the way their police forces came together almost seamlessly to track down the 2002 Bali bombers.
Indonesia has had no significant Chinese incursions since last year when a Chinese survey ship and an armed Chinese Coastguard escort spent seven weeks inside Indonesia’s EEZ surveying the seabed around the site of a gas-drilling operation.
Jakarta remained silent on the intrusion, but it was later disclosed that the Chinese Foreign Ministry had raised the stakes by protesting the exploratory drilling in what is known as the Tuna Block because it lies inside China’s nine-dash line of claimed national sovereignty that overlaps the EEZ.
Analysts remain puzzled why the Chinese have set out to pick a fight with Indonesia, which is not a claimant to the disputed Spratly islands, tends to take a conciliatory position on most issues and is a major target of Chinese industrial investment.
Upstream oil and gas regulator SSKMigas said earlier this month that British company Harbour Energy and its Russian partner were preparing a plan of development (POD) for the modest natural gas resource, which may only be a commercial proposition if it is piped a relatively short distance into a supply network in neighboring Vietnam.