china pla navy exercise australia indonesia relations

China's Indo-Pacific naval exercise, which I first analysed in this post, is continuing to make waves, with David Wroe of the Sydney Morning Herald providing this good wrap-up on the implications for Australia. But what are we to make of the latest twist being reported in the Jakarta Post?  

The report quotes an Indonesian military spokesman as saying that Jakarta had allowed Chinese navy vessels to pass through Indonesian waters  as 'a token of our friendship'. The headline suggests, none too subtly, that this was also about Indonesia deliberately snubbing Australian sensitivities, presumably because of differences over issues such as illegal immigration and espionage.

But the report needs to be treated with caution. A few elements don't stack up.

For a start, the TNI spokesman, Rear Admiral Iskandar Sitompul, does not appear to have said anything about Australia when referring to the Chinese naval exercise, suggesting that the 'Indonesia thumbs its nose at Oz' headline may be a bit of editorial mischief aimed at stoking Australia-Indonesia tensions.

Second, the details quoted about the Chinese exercise are not consistent with the Chinese navy's own official reports about what took place.

The Chinese version is that three ships were involved: two destroyers and a large amphibious transport ship, with this taskforce traveling directly from its base in China.  The Jakarta Post version includes the extraordinary assertion that the vessels included multiple submarines, and that they were returning from 'anti-piracy training in the Gulf of Aden'. Either these details are incorrect, or the Jakarta Post and the TNI spokesman are referring to quite a different Chinese taskforce.

This raises new and interesting questions, whether about the tempo and nature of Chinese naval activities in the Indian Ocean, or the accuracy of Indonesian media reporting. (I should add that another Indonesian newspaper has been quite fair-minded in offering an Australian interpretation of events.)

In my view, it would be downright strange for Chinese submarines to be taking part in 'anti-piracy' training, and just as odd for them to be transiting the Sunda Strait from north to south on their way home to China from the western reaches of the Indian Ocean. So I suspect someone has their facts wrong.

In any case, it is misleading to suggest that Indonesia allowing Chinese ships to use an international waterway like the Sunda Strait is in any way a special favour. The Chinese navy has every right to exercise its right of innocent passage through such a waterway. It was perfectly normal for Indonesia to let them through, and a gesture neither of friendship to China nor of rudeness to Australia.

Photo courtesy of Sinodefence Forum.