Between China, Russia, South Korea, a race for RI’s defense
CommentaryAk 630 KRI Kujang (Eko Jasindo)
China and Russia are no longer sitting on the fence in their attempts to wield greater influence over Indonesia’s defense industry after South Korea takes a strong lead in the race to pioneer joint production of advanced military hardware.
The House of Representatives ratified last week a defense agreement with China that was previously struck between the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono administration and its Chinese counterpart in Beijing in 2007.
Under the ratified agreement, made as a legal umbrella for future defense deals, Indonesia and China agreed to take their defense cooperation to a higher level by agreeing to put in place joint defense research, technology transfer and production.
A clause on the secrecy and protection of intellectual property rights in defense technology was also inserted in the agreement, which emphasizes the importance of both countries to adhere to the highest standards of confidentiality.
While Indonesia’s acquisition of military equipment from China is still by far smaller than that ordered from the US, Russia, Europe and South Korea, the ratification will serve as a springboard for China to play a greater role.
What is of particular interest for Indonesia in the deal with China is to secure the much-needed technology to develop its own short- and long-range guided missiles, a field in which China is proven to have the edge.
Since 2013, Indonesia and China have been locked in negotiations for the planned joint production of C-705 antiship missiles for the Indonesian Navy. However, the absence of a ratified agreement for the cooperation is cited among the many issues hampering the development.
The ratified agreement came amid all-time high relations between Indonesia, under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, and China. And it is very likely that many defense deals currently in the pipeline will materialize sooner rather than later.
Concurrently, Russia has also intensified talks with Indonesia, as indicated by the visit of Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev last month and Jokowi’s planned visit to Russia in the first half of this year.
During Patrushev’s visit, Russia, whose military hardware already serves as the backbone of the Indonesian Air Force, convinced the government to buy its weaponry systems, including more Sukhoi SU-35 jet fighters, helicopters, Kilo-class submarines and Club S guided missiles; the two sides also agreed to greater transfer of technology.
Indonesia’s hedging of China and Russia may stem from previous bitter experiences, specifically the arms embargo slapped on the country by the US and its allies, who alleged that the Indonesian Military (TNI) had masterminded a string of bloody reprisals and attacks as East Timor wrenched itself free from the nation.
Although the embargo was lifted in 2006, many policymakers are disinclined to buy more US arms over concerns a ban could be re-imposed. The biggest arms deal with the US after 2006 was the US donation of 24 used-F16 jet fighters in 2011, with Indonesia paying US$460 million for the planes’ refurbishment.
But one staunch US ally, South Korea, seems to be capitalizing on Indonesia’s defense needs, particularly after the enactment of the 2012 Defense Industry Law requiring Indonesia to prioritize the purchase of foreign military hardware using technology that can be shared for joint production.
South Korea is the first country to grant Indonesia transfer of technology for the construction of billions of dollars worth of submarines and jet fighters.
The deal has positioned South Korea at the very top of Indonesia’s list of strategic defense partners, putting it in prime position for the future provision of advanced defense systems.
Regional peers and rivals will, by following the deal’s development closely, look to ascertain whether Indonesia is in fact able to pull the project off.
The deal, however, is not without problems. The joint production of the Chang Bogo, a variant of diesel-electric attack submarines originally developed by Germany, is likely to be delayed and Indonesia may not receive the promised technology.
Indonesia bought the three submarines in 2012 for more than $1 billion. Under the contract, two submarines would be built in South Korea in cooperation with state-owned shipbuilder PT PAL, while the third would be built at PT PAL’s facilities in Surabaya, East Java.
News emerged late last month that Indonesia had for various reasons pushed back deadlines to construct the submarines at its shipyards.
Reports have also emerged that Indonesian technicians have not received sufficient training in South Korea to enable them to do the job, with their South Korean counterparts attempting to teach only by demonstration, rather than by allowing the Indonesian technicians to practice.
Concerns are rife that the joint production will remain on paper only, as Indonesia’s technicians and infrastructure will have the ability only to assemble while all parts and most of the workers are likely to be imported from South Korea.
Transparency is also lacking on the part of the Defense Ministry, primarily in terms of the definition and scope of joint production and technology transfer in the submarine contract.
It remains unclear as to whether Germany, as the original developer of the submarine, has allowed South Korea to share the technology with Indonesia.
Another noted cooperation deal with South Korea is the joint project for the production of the KF-X/IF-X jet fighter, which is expected to be semi-stealth and able to outmaneuver the US-made F-16.
Indonesia has contributed $1.5 billion, or 20 percent of the needed funds to develop the aircraft, which is scheduled to be in production by 2025.
According to officials, South Korea is willing to transfer 100 percent of the technology, but no details have emerged on the specific role Indonesia will play in the planned production.
But despite several drawbacks in the cooperation, South Korea has taught Indonesia a valuable lesson – a lesson that indeed poses a risk to South Korea when it comes to the transfer of its military technology to the China-leaning Indonesia.
The commitment to South Korea to protect its defense technology from falling to the hands of a third country will be a test of Indonesia’s credibility.
Learning from the drawbacks in South Korea deals, Indonesia should have all the capital now to stand in good stead when forging joint-production agreements with China and Russia.
The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.