U.S. Marines take their position during a joint amphibious assault exercise with their Indonesian counterparts on Banongan beach in Situbondo, East Java, Indonesia, June 5, 2012.
U.S. Marines take their position during a joint amphibious assault exercise with their Indonesian counterparts on Banongan beach in Situbondo, East Java, Indonesia, June 5, 2012.
JAKARTA - The United States is furthering its defense partnership with Indonesia by committing to securing the waters in Southeast Asia against threats posed by terrorism, piracy and renewed territorial tensions. China, too, is building its naval presence in the region.

Some of the world’s most vital shipping lanes cross through Indonesia, a country of more than 17,000 islands. With billions of dollars in trade moving through the waters each year, U.S. officials say the country is key to maintaining regional peace and stability.

As part of a pivot toward the Asia-Pacific announced by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last June, the United States is looking to enhance its partnership with Indonesia in several areas, including maritime security.

The goal is to work with regional allies to combat common threats, says Captain Adrian Jansen, the naval attaché at the U.S. Embassy, who spoke at a public gathering in Jakarta this week.

“Indonesia and the U.S. face many common threats - the threat of conflict in the South China Sea, the threat of piracy on the seas, natural disasters that injure our nations, the threat of terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction that the threaten our very existence,” Jansen stated.

Analysts warn the United States needs to use those common threats to engage more with China. Otherwise, the increased American  presence could spark conflicts with Beijing, which is also expanding its regional influence.

Collin Koh is an associate research fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“If we look at the sort of actions that we see to date, it seems pretty evident that the U.S. pivot is primarily targeted at containing China’s emergence," he said. "Which coincided with China’s growing power and its growing assertiveness.”

As part of its naval engagement, the United States has conducted training exercises focused on counter-piracy and enhanced warfare techniques. Those exercises have grown significantly since the U.S. resumed military ties with Indonesia in 2005.  

Meanwhile, China has also expanded its trade and defense relations. Indonesian media reported the recent sale of C-705 missiles to equip more than a dozen Indonesian warships. The two countries are also set to sign a technology-transfer contract that would allow Indonesia to produce the missiles domestically.

The increased cooperation comes as disputes intensify among China and several members of the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations.

Four of the 10 members of that regional grouping claim sovereignty of parts of the South China Sea. But China claims nearly the entire area. In the past, Philippine and Vietnamese fishing fleets have had dramatic standoffs with Chinese vessels in the remote waters, sparking worries that the dispute could lead to open conflict.

On Tuesday, Hao Yinbiao, an official at the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta, said China is committed to diplomatic negotiations and refuted concerns that China’s increasingly aggressive actions would lead to confrontation.

“A growing country tends to be believed by other people to have some conflicts with the existing powers and influences. We have no other agenda, like sentiments against the United States of America,” Yinbiao noted.

Indonesia does not claim any of the contested territory and, in the past, has played a key role as a broker in the dispute.  But, after failing to reach any substantive agreement on the South China Sea during the last ASEAN summit, there are some analysts who worry the dispute could become a battle for regional influence that could compromise ASEAN unity - despite Indonesia’s efforts to broker a deal.