On Friday, Indonesia and the United States broke ground on a new $3.5 million maritime training center on the island of Batam, at the southern entrance to the strategic and congested Straits of Malacca.
Attending the ceremony virtually, Sung Kim, the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, said the new center, which will house classrooms, barracks, and a helicopter launch pad, would help advance the two nations’ efforts to bolster security in the region, according to a statement from the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla).
“As a friend and partner to Indonesia, the United States remains committed to supporting Indonesia’s important role in maintaining regional peace and security by fighting domestic and transnational crimes,” Kim said, as per Bakamla’s statement.
The new center will be well located. Batam is the main island in the Riau Islands, which lie in close proximity to Singapore and the southeastern mouth of the Malacca Straits, a crucial chokepoint for global maritime trade.
In addition to being plagued by piracy, the straits are central to the strategic map of the region, representing a key vulnerability for China’s economy, and hence for its regional and global ambitions. For the past two decades, Chinese strategists have become concentrated on their nation’s heavy reliance on the Straits, which Hu Jintao referred to as the “Malacca dilemma” in 2003. China has sought to build up a naval capacity able to prevent any hostile power from blocking the important shipping channel.
This is the strategic rationale behind China’s expansive and legally dubious “nine-dash line” claim to the majority of the South China Sea, which, if successful, would prevent rival naval forces from accessing or blockading the straits.
This naval claim, backed increasingly by the deployment of navy and maritime militia vessels, has brought China into increasing friction with the ocean-facing nations of Southeast Asia, slicing through large parts of the 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zones of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. Most recently, the Philippines has protested the presence of hundreds of Chinese fishing boats and maritime militia vessels in disputed parts of the Spratly Islands.
While Jakarta is not a formal legal claimant in the South China Sea, some of its waters lie on the wrong side of Beijing’s “nine-dash line,” and the two nations have engaged in a string of stand-offs over the past five years.
The new collaboration with the U.S. on the Batam training center is just the latest sign of Indonesia’s push to bolster the capacity of its aging navy, which has struggled to patrol the archipelago’s full sprawling expanse of territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. It follows a virtual workshop that Bakamla held with the U.S. Coast Guard focused on maritime security, after the alleged discovery of Chinese unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, in Indonesian waters.
Earlier this month, the Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri announced that it had reached a deal with the Indonesian government to supply it with six new FREMM multipurpose frigates and two secondhand Maestrale-class frigates.
The Italian deal follows Indonesia’s signing of an agreement with Japan allowing the transfer of Japanese military equipment and technology to the Indonesian armed forces, and the news that Indonesia was planning to spend $3.6 billion on the procurement of up to eight of Japan’s new Mogami-class stealth frigates.