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Behind the Japan-Indonesia arms technology transfer deal

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Indonesia and Japan signed an arms technology transfer deal during the visit of the former’s defence and foreign ministers to Tokyo on 30 Mar.

Besides the arms technology transfer deal, Indonesia and Japan are also considering cooperation in strengthening military capacity for both countries, as indicated by Indonesia’s defence minister Prabowo Subianto.

Under the arms technology transfer deal, Japan could send eight Mogami-class stealth frigates to Indonesia as a part of the effort to bolster the latter’s long-range patrol capabilities, and to boost strategic defence ties with Japan in general, Asia Times reported.

The government’s sources stated the Indonesia administration’s temporary plan was to request Japan to ship four 3,900-tonnes frigate at the end of 2023 or early 2024. The remaining four will be manufactured by Indonesia’s state-owned shipyard in Surabaya.

Previously, Japan signed a USD 103.5 million deal to export advanced air surveillance radars to the Philippines, seen as Japan’s historic export of complete defence equipment, Forbes reported.

China’s factor is behind Japan’s overhaul in peace constitution

National security analyst Brandon Weichert told TOC that Japan has started moving away from its peace constitution since Shinzo Abe — who resigned last Aug due to health reasons — was elected to his premiership, adding that China’s rising under Xi Jinping also played a role.

“Japan’s military, particularly its navy, has been rated for the last ten to twenty years as the most advanced military force in the world. Of course, compared to the US, it will be a different story.

“But without the US, Japan’s military could be considered as the most advanced globally. Still, they are very conservative in deploying its forces due to its peace constitution,” Weichert explained, adding that Japan has capabilities as sophisticated as the US possesses.

“For the past three years — from the Donald Trump-Kim Jong-Un meeting to the Joe Biden administration now — I think China has posed a bigger threat to Japan.

“However, North Korea also sends an alarming bell, and I think both North Korea and China are co-equal threats,” Weichert opined, when asked about which countries pose more threats to Japan.

Japan’s Navy reputation came as no surprise. Kyle Mizokami in his article in The National Interest in 2016 observed that an advantage Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force has was its aircraft carriers.

Also, Japan’s Izumo class’ helicopter destroyer” can carry 14 helicopters and be deployed in sophisticated anti-sub warfare.

The export of surveillance radar can be a beginning—considered a conservative—before Japan starts exporting other types of weapons, Weichert said.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report, published on 15 Mar, stated that Japan’s arms import jumped 124 per cent from 2011 to 2015 and the 2016-2020 period.

Japan’s defence equipment matches Indonesia’s needs

International relations expert Yusran told TOC that Indonesia considers the type of armed equipment the country had purchased from Japan to be compatible with its own defence strategies and geopolitical requirements, adding that Tokyo respects Jakarta’s position in ASEAN.

“It is normative to measure whether the technology is advanced or not. The technological aspect is only one of the factors Indonesia considers in buying military equipment. But it is more than that, we talk about needs. Based on my observation, Prabowo Subianto is stating that what Japan offers matches Indonesia’s defence concept and geopolitical and geostrategist needs,” the lecturer said in an interview.

Notwithstanding the purchase of Japanese military equipment, Indonesia is also trying to modernise its own military equipment, said Yusran.

He added that Indonesia needs to boost cooperation with other countries with advanced defence technology, Yusran added.

The South China Sea factor

China’s military presence in the contested water has raised other countries’ concerns even though they are non-claimants.

Several ASEAN countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei Darussalam have unresolved maritime issues in the oil-rich water with China.

“The non-claimant countries do not want China to annex all of the South China Sea. If you look at how China is moving and deploying things in the region. There is a lot of energy such as oil there.”

“China has shown disrespect for international law, based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. There are strategic issues that influence the involvement of non-claimant countries. China is worrying about the US military’s projection,” Weichert elaborated.

China’s Coast Guard Law, which allows the country’s coast guard ships to shoot any foreign ships entering the China waters, is also a cause for concern for Indonesia, said Indonesia’s Maritime Security Board chief, Vice-Admiral Aan Kurnia.

He told SCMP last February that the Coast Guard Law can potentially increase the risk of the ongoing conflict in the Natuna waters.

“With China becoming more assertive in the South China Sea and considering the responses from major countries with interests in those waters, there is a risk of conflict escalating,” Aan said.

Japan vs China in ASEAN

In Oct last year, Japan’s prime minister Yoshihide Suga visited Indonesia and Vietnam in an effort to contain China’s growing influence in the region.

Vietnam—which then chaired ASEAN—and Indonesia as the largest economy in the bloc were expected to give a vital influence on Japan’s foreign policy.

ASEAN has good relationships with both East Asian powers. In 2017, the trade volume from China to ASEAN member countries reached USD 514.8 billion, up 13.8 per cent year-on-year, according to official data.

The data from the Japan External Trade Organisation showed that trade between Japan and ASEAN reached USD 214 billion in 2019.

Both Yusran and Weichert agreed that China’s growing influence in ASEAN for the last ten years or more has contributed to Japan’s worries.

“The rise in ASEAN’s cooperation with China has triggered Japan’s concerns, forcing Tokyo to create a breakthrough by offering a defence agreement like this arms technology transfer deal. I think the China-Japan rivalry will always exist in ASEAN,” Yusran wrapped up the interview.

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